BoJack Horseman began as a cynical, insider-ish story of a self-absorbed Hollywoo(d) man-horse-child, but through a series of virtuoso signature episodes, BoJack demonstrated that shows in the streaming era need put no limits on ambition and innovation; that a cartoon could be as deep as an hour-long drama and as unpredictable as the name Raphael Bob-Waksberg. Now, in the first half of its final season, BoJack Horseman attempts to close the loop on its original premise, and while individual episodes may not be as outstanding as previous seasons, its goal might be its most ambitious endeavor yet.
The season begins with BoJack in rehab, haunted by the overdose death of former co-star Sarah Lynn, and follows his efforts to finally address the not-inconsiderable pain he's caused to others. (A new title sequence clues us in to the season's theme, with cigarette-burn ruptures taking BoJack through a greatest hits of his irrevocable moral failures.) In rehab, BoJack begins to learn self-forgiveness, but late-breaking plot developments threaten to draw the bridle of judgement around BoJack's dapple-chestnut neck. Will BoJack's redemption be too little too late?
This is a tough creative question. BoJack Horseman has always contrasted BoJack's bleak, destructive existence with the tied-with-a-bow predictability of "Horsin' Around," the innocuous family sitcom which brought him fame as an actor. With the rehab plot, BoJack Horseman toys dangerously but knowingly with sitcom-style simplicity.
This is in its way its own high-wire act. In one of BoJack's best and most groundbreaking Season 5 episodes (in which BoJack spent twenty minutes delivering a Spaulding Gray-esque eulogy for his mother,) BoJack put it explicitly: "You can't have a happy ending in sitcoms, because if everyone's happy, the show is over." In Season 6 we know we're heading for an ending, and there's a tension between what we seem to be getting (a happy one) and what the show has led us to expect (a bleak or ambiguous one). A happy ending threatens to betray the show's realism (despite its outrageous sight gags, the characters are written naturalistically), whereas a dark or fatalistic ending could topple the series into the pure cynicism with which it, and its characters, have always flirted.
Compared to the high-flying, genre-stretching antics of previous seasons, BoJack's journey towards self-awareness isn't especially fun to watch. (Three years into the Trump administration, man-childs are wearing thin.) Fortunately, BoJack's secondary characters are still buoyant. Characters like Diane and Todd also seem headed towards an ending, making (or making peace with) big life decisions, but they express an easy three-dimensionality which sad-sack BoJack lacks, and their spotlight episodes are more comfortable exploring creative storytelling approaches. When Princess Carolyn tries to juggle her career, baby, and sanity, her mind state is represented visually by a bevy of superimposed, multi-tasking Princess Carolyns. When a reporter is needed for the plot, BoJack gives us a totally gratuitous episode-long parody of a His Girl Friday-style screwball-comedy newsroom. My favorite episode was a botched surprise party for Mr. Peanut Butter, which creates tension with a single, ludicrously sustained gag (think of the genital-concealing Austin Powers scene). It's a blast! But it's one of the episodes least haunted by BoJack's pet themes of mortality, legacy, and generational angst. In the past, the BoJack episodes with the greatest formal experimentation were also the most successfully deep; in this season, "fun" and "deep" seem divorced.
In some ways, the show which BoJack Horseman most resembles is Arrested Development, which also tested the limits of unlikeable characters, while consistently pulling off jaw-dropping formal experimentation (BoJack voice actor Will Arnett played Arrested's similarly self-centered Gob Bluth). Arrested Development took the freedom of an animated cartoon, and applied it to a live-action show, using any storytelling means necessary to connect one story to another or to land a gag. BoJack goes a step further; with animation making fantasy as accessible as reality, it feels at times like a direct plunge into imagination.
Eventually Arrested Development became untethered; a fate mirrored by BoJack's maniacally creative sister-show Tuca & Bertie, which flew too close to the sun for audiences (it lasted one season.) BoJack's final season seems to be purposefully slowing down, trying to give us a grounded landing that is emotionally satisfying. It is extremely possible that the second half of Season 6 will be BoJack's greatest stunt of all, but it may come to down to the same choice that BoJack faces. Which would you prefer: the drag of a comedown, or a floating off into the ether?
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
BoJack Horseman Season 6 (Part 1) premieres Friday, November 1 on Netflix.