The following contains spoilers for BoJack Horseman Season 5.
An interesting byproduct of modern TV watching is feeling like you have to beg for shows you love to die.
For most of television’s run, when there were only a handful of networks, it was the goal of each and every show to last for as long as possible. TV shows were creative pursuits sure, but they were first and foremost soap selling job factories. There was no such thing as a show being “ready” to end. Shows were ready to end when they stopped selling commercial time or everyone involved was dead.
That’s changed now, of course, thanks to superb modern dramas like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and others. These shows were striving for a higher, arguably cinematic purpose. They were stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. Still, whether on cable, pay cable, or streaming, television remains a commercial endeavor. Shows make money by existing. There is no commercial time in death.
Hence the experience of advocating for shows we love to know when to quit, even it means leaving advertising dollars or potential new subscriptions on the table. It’s a hard thing to ask of any show – especially since these shows represent actual income for actual human beings, which is almost certainly more important than any of our high-minded pursuit of art and deeper meaning. Still, as viewers it’s hard not to watch dramas we love with little ticking doomsday cancellation clocks in the back of our heads. The clock is particularly loud on Netflix’s BoJack Horseman.
Through four, now five seasons, BoJack Horseman has been one of the very best shows on television, comedy, drama, or otherwise. It certainly helps that BoJack fits all three categories of comedy, drama, and “otherwise.” Ostensibly an animated comedy about an anthropomorphic horse actor who used to be on a popular ‘90s sitcom, BoJack has also somehow been one of the deepest explorations of the human condition and our endless capacity for self-loathing to ever appear in any medium.
It’s as funny as any comedy in its class and as brilliant as any drama. BoJack, along with friends Todd, Mr. Peanutbutter, Diane, and Princess Carolyn all navigate their own damage and personal trauma in “Hollywoo, California” while still occasionally building sex robot network executives. BoJack’s mastery of both comedy and serialized dramatic storytelling doesn’t make it unique on television. There are plenty of excellent dramedies to be found on television like Rick and Morty, Orange is the New Black, and arguably even Better Call Saul.
BoJack is in a unique position, however, when it comes to its relationship to its own ending and our perception of that ticking series finale clock in the back of our heads. This is a serialized drama and it feels natural for the story of BoJack Horseman must have an encroaching end. BoJack is so depressed and so self-destructive that the show seemingly has only two outcomes: BoJack gets better…or BoJack hits a true, unrecoverable rock bottom. That’s in line with what we expect from drama series. Either this guy will get better or he won’t.
Then again, while BoJack is indeed a serialized drama, it’s also an animated comedy. Animated shows can last seemingly forever. While not nearly as serialized as BoJack Horseman, animated forefathers The Simpsons and South Park have lasted a combined 51 seasons! And why wouldn’t they? Animation doesn’t have to deal with aging actors or endure the annoyance of finding new sets. Animation can remain relevant for as long as it wants. More importantly: it can keep talented, creative people employed for as long as it wants.
That’s where the fear for BoJack Horseman’s timeline comes in. The saga of BoJack’s pain is so lovingly, realistically rendered that naturally we want it to end for the poor guy one way or another. On the other hand though, can this show that has done so well for Netflix and still bursting with creative energy really end anytime soon?
BoJack Horseman Season 5 puts all of those concerns to rest. This show can last as long as it damn well wants to.
“Free Churro,” the sixth episode of BoJack Horseman Season 5 is going to generate the most online chatter and rightfully so. It’s a stunning achievement of TV writing. The episode finds BoJack giving a eulogy for his recently deceased mother and…that’s it. That’s the episode. Save for one opening flashback in which BoJack’s father must pick up a young BoJack from soccer practice because his mother is having a “fit,” the entirety of the episode’s 25 minute running time is dedicated to one complicated adult delivering a complicated eulogy for a complicated woman that he had a complicated relationship with.
It’s astonishing and bold. BoJack’s long, rambling eulogy contains multitudes about the human experience – or at least how he experiences it. Why were his mother’s final words “I see you?” Was her addled mind merely pointing out that she saw another body in the room? Or was it a deeper acknowledge that after all of these years she finally sees her son as a human being (or horse being) before her. Ultimately BoJack realizes that she was just saying “ICU” as they were in the intensive care unit. Beatrice Horseman’s final words contained nothing of relevance for her son – just like every word before them. It’s one final brutally sad realization for BoJack that his mother was in no way equipped to handle the reality of having a son – or even handling the reality of anything else. It’s one more stack of evidence of the hole in BoJack’s heart that he inherited from her.
Each moment of BoJack’s monologue is perfectly imperfect – wrought, devastating, funny, and strange. There is one portion of BoJack’s monologue, however, that serves as a clear message to those of us with our eye on the end of this series.
“The network had a note,” BoJack says of Horsin’ Around. “Maybe don’t mention they’re orphans so much because audiences tend to find orphans sad. I never thought the orphans were sad. I thought they were lucky. They could imagine their parents to be anything they wanted them to be. Anyway we did this one season finale where Olivia’s birth mother comes around. She’s a junkie but she wants to be in Olivia’s life again. Of course she’s like this perfect grown up version of Olivia. They go to the mall together and get her ears pierced like she’s always wanted. Anyway the horse tries to warn her be careful –m om’s have a way of letting you down. When the mom says she’s moving to California, Olivia wants to go with her. The network really juiced the cliffhanger. Is Olivia gone for good? But of course – since it’s a TV show, Olivia isn’t gone for good. Of course, because it’s a TV show, Olivia’s mother had a relapse so Olivia had to hitchhike all the way home, getting rides from Mr. T, ALF, and the cast of Stomp. Of course that’s what happened because what are you gonna do – just not have Olivia on the show? You can’t have happy endings in sitcoms because then the show would be over. And above all else – the show has to keep going. There’s always more show. You can call Horsin’ Around dumb or bad or unrealistic but there’s nothing more realistic than that. You never get a happy ending because there’s always more show. Until there isn’t.”
There’s always more show. Until there isn’t. Oftentimes on this show, BoJack Horseman’s former life as a ‘90s sitcom star on Horsin’ Around is played for a laugh. It’s clear that BoJack, though an abject emotional disaster, is also an astute, soulful person who has picked up crucial lessons in his time among pop culture that we often overlook.
We want our beloved dramas to end on time because we can’t bear them to drag along from meaningless season to meaningless season. We like to think that an ending is an opportunity for a show to wrap things up in a nice little bow and put the finishing touches on its legacy: beginning, middle, and end. What we rarely realize, however, is just how much longer that “middle” portion is than anything else. In television and in life, beginnings and endings are but a moment – the middle is a damned eternity.
There’s a fear with shows like BoJack Horseman that the writers and characters will start to repeat themselves and keep committing the same mistakes over again with little evidence of growth. Seasons two, three, and five of BoJack Horseman have now all ended in an uncomfortably familiar fashion – with BoJack screwing up catastrophically. In season two’s conclusion BoJack very nearly sleeps with his former fling’s teenaged daughter and completely blows up one of the most important relationships in his life. In season three, BoJack goes on a months long bender and brings former co-star, Sarah Lynn along with him. BoJack survives the bender. Sarah Lynn doesn’t. The conclusion of season four is uncommonly hopefuly. BoJack discovers that potential daughter is actually his sister. The season ends with BoJack beaming, excited at the prospect for another chance to build a relationship with a family member, this time not as destructive as the one that he had with his mother.
Now by the end of season five, BoJack is right back to rock bottom – where he’s seemingly always belonged. A relationship with painkillers predictably, quietly rages out of control. And before he knows it, he is experiencing opiate-induced mania and literally choking his co-star and girlfriend on camera on the set of his TV show, Philbert. BoJack does opt to enter into rehab at the season’s end but the damage has already been done – another relationship destroyed, the chasm widening in the emptiness inside him.
It’s understandable that we, as viewers, would want this to end sooner rather than later. How many times can the same person make the same mistakes with only minimal, sometimes barely noticeable, signs of growth? We might even be tempted to call the lack of growth bad writing. If it’s a TV show’s aim to reflect the realities of life, however, then there can’t possibly be better writing on display than for the characters to make the same mistakes over and over again.
BoJack clearly believes in the connection between reality and television. In his drug-induced hallucination, he witnesses his co-star and eventual choking victim, Gina, singing a Chicago-style show about the expectations the world has for him.
“Life is a never-ending show, my friend – a twisting, ever-bending show. The audience is everyone you know, my friend. Leave them with a smile when they go. Get up there and give them your all. Don’t stop dancing ’til the curtains fall!” “Living is a nasty, bitter slog, my mare. Can’t stop dancing until the curtains fall.”
Life is a never-ending show. And there’s always more show…until there isn’t. Shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad revolutionized television with the mere idea that television shows should end on their own terms. That decision alone has helped elevate the medium into something far more important and impactful. Ironically, as BoJack Horseman Season 5 points out, maybe it was the “old” multi-camera laugh track comedies that had it right in the first place. In life and television, there is no preparing for the end.
The goal is to last as long as possible. There can be creative pursuits, but the first objective is selling soap. There is no such thing as a show being “ready” to end. We are all ready to end when we stop selling commercial time.
The call for BoJack Horseman to come to a neat, satisfactory end and soon will not go away. Hopefully, the show resists it and becomes our first animated drama that attempts to balance the dramatic demands of art and the very long, repetitive “middle” of life.
There’s always more show. Until there isn’t.