‘BoJack Horseman’ Creator Talks About Hollywood and Forgiveness

‘BoJack Horseman’ Creator Talks About Hollywood and Forgiveness

Minor spoilers for Season 5 of “Bojack Horseman” follow.

The animated series “Bojack Horseman,” in which the titular star is a hard-drinking and severely depressed anthropomorphic horse, has always embraced the dark and the bleak: Alongside the jokes, talking animals and showbiz satire are unrelenting depictions of addiction and abuse and biting critiques of institutions, especially Hollywood. Season 5, now streaming on Netflix, is no different, with BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett), Diane (Alison Brie) and Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) continuing to navigate their way through deeply personal lows.

One of the more cynical touches from the new season is the Forgivies, an awards ceremony skewering the current spate of prominent public figures who are accused of wielding their power for bad. “BoJack Horseman” has covered this territory before (in Season 2, it took on Bill Cosby), but the relevant connection to #MeToo was more coincidental than intentional: “We actually kind of backed into it, because we started talking about this season last summer,” said Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the show’s creator.

“It didn’t start from a place of ‘O.K., this Time’s Up thing is happening, how are we going to respond to that?’” he continued. “It really was more organically thinking about what’s happening in BoJack’s life, but also in the life of Los Angeles, right now.”

In a recent telephone conversation, Mr. Bob-Waksberg discussed the concept of forgiveness, this season’s monologue episode and how he envisions Hollywood’s future. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

This season deals very explicitly with the theme of disgraced celebrities. How did the current news cycle influence you?

One of the things we responded to, or at least I personally was responding to, was the fact that my agency [Creative Artists Agency] had signed Mel Gibson as a client, which I found really repugnant. I complained about it, and I wanted to explore that. What is the proper amount of time before we, as a community, decide to forgive a person? What hoops do they have to jump through — which is a very cynical way of putting it — for us to forgive them? I found myself, in this particular case, really unwilling to forgive. But also, I am someone who does believe in the power of forgiveness, generally.

How does that jibe with this idea of what we’re currently going through, that it feels like people are being forgiven too easily? How can I condemn that while at the same time being like, “No, but, we do need to forgive each other?” Some people have also not really done the work to be forgiven.

There are a lot of references to previous seasons — BoJack’s questionable interactions with Charlotte’s daughter, Penny, for instance — which also suggest that he hasn’t learned much from his mistakes. Is that a creative challenge for you, figuring out how to keep this character that hasn’t fundamentally changed interesting?

“Fundamentally” is a good word, because I think he’s changed in small ways, moved forward, and then moved back again. A big thing we were talking about at the beginning of this season is, “What does BoJack really need to do in order to change?”

The things we kept landing on are: He needs to get sober and get therapy. That’s what this guy needs. His refusal to do that is the thing that’s holding him. It felt like if we want to move this character forward, we need to get him to the place where he’s willing to do those things.

That means he needs to find a new rock bottom to hit, unfortunately. At the end of Season 4, he thinks he’s in a good place. Why would he get help then? Why would he change anything about himself? He feels like, “I’ve climbed out of this hole, myself.” A big point of this season is that you don’t have to do it yourself. In fact, this idea that you should do it yourself is harmful. BoJack feels that to ask for help from other people is a sign of weakness, and that it’s dragging people down, trying to get them to care about his problems. That’s something that’s deeply ingrained in him.

I do think BoJack being willing to do that at the end of this season does represent real growth. But I wouldn’t blame an audience for being dubious of that, based on his performance in the past.

He and Diane have a blowout toward the end of the season, and she asks for the details of what he’s done to other women in the past. He says that he can’t remember and he doesn’t even know if they will remember.

I haven’t planned out what happens next, but I would guess that most of those women remember. Can he undo any of the things that we’ve seen him do in this series, or other things that are implied, that we don’t even know about? No, he cannot. He cannot undo that damage.

[But] I think there’s a lot to be said for stopping, and changing. There’s a danger in thinking, “It’s too late for me, therefore I’m just going to continue being a bad guy for the rest of my life.” I think that’s really damaging and self-fulfilling — using your previous damage, or bad deeds, as an excuse to continue to do bad deeds.

What made you choose to depict the funeral for BoJack’s mother via monologue?

The format came first. We talked about how do we maintain the interest over a whole episode, when it’s just a monologue? You’re just watching this guy talk, which is not really done a lot in the world of animation. I feel like it doesn’t necessarily play up all of our strengths, and I think to handicap ourselves in that way felt like a good challenge.

I think it’s also really a testament to Will Arnett as an actor that he can sustain the episode the way he does. I will say it’s the best acting of his entire career. He might not agree with that; people who have worked on other shows might not agree with that. But he really is incredible on this episode. I’m so proud that I got to write it for him.

That monologue is a continuation of how the show examines the cyclical effects of trauma, especially within families: The idea that hurt people will hurt people.

Right. I think that also relates, again, to forgiveness. A big part of BoJack’s relationship with his mother is about this question of, what can you forgive? And can you forgive when no apology is offered? You’re not forgiving for her sake, you’re forgiving for your own sake. Is that a thing worth doing? And how can you find a way to do that?

Are you hopeful that change within the industry can really happen on a grand scale, outside of Weinstein?

Yes. We need to be more rigorous. The events that happen at the end of this season don’t happen a lot, but it does happen. You do hear reports of abusive things happening on sets too often, in ways that if that happened in a corporate boardroom, forget about it. That guy’s fired, everyone knows about it. That stuff doesn’t fly.

As far as taking care of its workers, Hollywood is behind the times, actually. We’ve allowed ourselves some wiggle room because we’re artists, but I think we can have strict rules. Absolutely we should be held to the same standard that most people in most professions are. I think there are moves to make that happen, and I am hopeful that they will.

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