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‘BoJack Horseman’ Creator on Season 5’s Sharp (and Accidental) #MeToo Parallels

Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched all of season 5 of “BoJack Horseman.”

The best show about the entertainment industry is an animated comedy starring an alcoholic horse, an enthusiastic labrador, and a workaholic cat. Since its 2014 debut, Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman” — which follows the bizarro world of “Hollywoo” — has been TV’s sly MVP of calling out Hollywood’s worst impulses. With sharpened wit, wicked punchlines, and a hefty streak of pathos, “BoJack” has tackled everything from depression, to addiction, to all the self-aggrandizing nonsense that keeps entertainment running.

Season 5, which dropped September 14, feels especially timely. It not only features Hollywood struggling to acknowledge its rotten, sexist practices, but confronts the fact that the show’s main character — BoJack himself — has very often abused his power in exactly the way that inspired the #MeToo movement in the first place.

As per “BoJack” creator Raphael Bob Waksberg, however, this storyline was in motion months before the first Harvey Weinstein allegations broke last October. “We broke the whole season late last summer,” Waksberg tells Variety, insisting that “not much” about the overarching season 5 plot actually changed in light of the new revelations. “This is a conversation that has been ready to happen for a long time,” Waksberg says, “and I’m really glad it’s happening, even if it’s messy.”

Variety caught up with Waksberg to talk about grappling with BoJack’s dark history, writing toxic male characters without endorsing their actions, and how “Calvin and Hobbes” affects the way he approaches the show. 

When did you start writing the season?

We started about a year ago. We broke the whole season late last summer, were writing into the fall, and I think we had our last table reads in January. Some interesting things sure happened as we were writing the season…!

How much changed as you were writing the season, as the real world started to echo it?

Very little, actually. In fact, most of the season was written pre-Harvey Weinstein. If we had started post-Weinstein we might have structured the season a little differently, but I don’t know if it would’ve been better. I think it actually worked out nicely this way, where the season kind of echoes and dovetails with some things that are happening in the real world but isn’t explicitly about them.

There was just one line of dialogue we had to change. Diane said, “these guys get away with everything and nobody cares.” And then people started caring! So we had to change it to something like, “these new stories break and people care about them, but nobody cares about the dirtbags we already know about,” which I think is sadly true. And as we move forward in time and the dirtbags that were breaking news turn into the dirtbags we already knew about, that frustration continues.

At first I thought it was wild that you had been writing this before the Weinstein allegations broke, but you know what, it’s not like this wasn’t happening before!

No! It’s in the air, you know? You can feel it now, especially as this tidal wave of stuff is happening. It felt like we as a society were finally ready for this, that there were people who wanted this to happen but didn’t necessarily have the vocabulary. This is a conversation that has been ready to happen for a long time, and I’m really glad it’s happening, even if it’s messy.

Season 5 digs into what it means to be a victim of that abuse with the character of Gina (Stephanie Beatriz), BoJack’s costar. She has to grapple with the fact that she doesn’t want what BoJack did to her to become her entire story. How did you make the choice to make her be the one who convinces him to keep quiet about it?

We really wanted to justify that decision for her. We worked to make Gina as fleshed out a character as we could in one season — and you and the reader can decide how successful we were — and not just make her a prop for BoJack’s latest descent. She doesn’t treat herself that way, nor does she want to be seen that way. That was something that we took a lot of consideration into, especially to make sure that decision wasn’t just convenient for plot purposes or just to make BoJack feel guilty about it. We wanted it to make sense for her from a character point of view.

And as we’re seeing now, she was right to be worried about how people would see her if they knew. There are a lot of people who spoke up after Weinstein who aren’t necessarily famous, and now their abuse is all anyone wants to ask them about.

It’s terrible. I’m completely disgusted by the idea that these women tell stories [about abuse] just so they can get famous, because there are zero examples of that working well. I don’t think that’s why anyone would do that. In fact, it’s the complete opposite. I understand why a woman would want to be silent with her story, which is very sad.

The show in general is good with toeing a very specific line with BoJack, but this season also makes Diane deal with her own feelings about writing on a show where BoJack plays a deeply flawed and sometimes abusive main character. She doesn’t want to indulge him or endorse his actions. How do you deal with the same, so far as writing BoJack himself goes?

That’s a question that clearly we were grappling with this season. I think that, as a show creator, you have to be very careful about what messages you’re putting out into the world. That is a not always popular thing to suggest, because it feels very Tipper Gore-y, perhaps. Or like, Helen Lovejoy, “won’t someone think of the children?!” But I do think that our words have power, and we tell these stories because we believe they have power. We want to be communicating with people. It’s a little disingenuous, or at least convenient, to say, “well look, if people misinterpret it and take the wrong message from it, that’s their problem. My show is an exploration and critique of toxic masculinity. It doesn’t relish in it. But if people embrace that aspect of it, there’s nothing I can do about it.”

I think it behooves us all to be more rigorous about that, and to ask ourselves, “How are we telling our stories? Is it satire? Is it an examination of something, or a celebration of it?” There’s only so far you can go with that, because your work is going to be misinterpreted, and people are going to take it the wrong way. You can’t control every aspect of it.

So that’s a responsibility I take very seriously, and we have a lot of conversations in the room like, “what are we saying about BoJack, and how can we be sure that we’re not glamorizing him?” Even though you might feel for him or pity him, you’re aware of the damage that he’s causing. He’s not an aspirational figure. The people in his life that are yelling at him or trying to change him aren’t the bad guys trying to take him down.

We try to position our values without being didactic about it, since we want people to form their own opinions. But we also don’t necessarily want to be like, “Diane is the voice of reason at all times! Everything she says is correct and everything BoJack says is wrong and stupid!” I like that those arguments have nuance. That big argument in episode 10, there are moments when it feels like, “whoa, Diane might be a little too harsh here,” or that she’s got stuff of her own that she’s not acknowledging. She can be hypocritical, too. But I do think the overall bent of the show is that I don’t want to be read as [granting] a blanket forgiveness of BoJack and his actions.

One thing I think about a lot is that one of my favorite pieces of narrative art as a child was “Calvin and Hobbes.” I really saw myself in the character of Calvin. I was rambunctious, I didn’t always follow the rules, I had a wild imagination. I prided myself as somewhat precocious, and…the fact that Calvin was treated with so much respect meant a great deal to me. I really modeled myself after him — for better and for worse.

A big streak in that series is how cruel he is to his neighbor Susie, and to girls in general. I was very cruel to the girls in my class, and I think I allowed myself to be that way because Calvin was so sensitively portrayed, and when he would say these mean things to girls and draw their heads on spikes, it was kind of just like, “well, boys will be boys!”

Now, I don’t think it was necessarily saying that it was a good thing he was so mean to Susie, because Susie often would get the upper hand and outsmart him. But I wonder if despite my love of that strip and all the good it did for me, how much of a bad influence it was for me. I mean, you could also argue that I was just a jerk and I would’ve been that way anyway! [laughs] Was Bill Watterson responsible for that? I think most people would say no, not really. But also, maybe a little bit? And I don’t think it takes away from the beautiful aspects of “Calvin and Hobbes” to acknowledge that.

So, I’m very aware of how many people see themselves in BoJack, and what the show has done for people in positive ways. I’ve very proud of that. But I do think that if you do relate to BoJack, a big message of this season is telling you, “Don’t rest on that. There’s work you could do, and should be doing.” I feel that kind of responsibility, and I want to do it in a way that isn’t too didactic. It’s something I wrestle with a lot, clearly.

Season 5, more than any other, emphasizes how much we know about BoJack’s history and what he’s done. I maybe foolishly, for instance, thought he and the show might have locked the New Mexico incident from season 2 away in a box never to be seen again.

Would that be good, though?

Well, no! Definitely not! But I was still surprised to have it come back like it did.

The germ of what we wanted to do this season was thinking about the end of season 3, when I saw a lot of fans saying that they couldn’t forgive BoJack anymore…and that he was “irredeemable.” Then, at the end of season 4, the major reaction was, “oh I’m so happy for him! I love BoJack!” I wanted to be like, “that’s the same guy!”

I don’t want to say you’re wrong for loving him at the end of season 4 and hating him at the end of season 3, but how do you deal with the fact that this is the same guy? And if you were in this person’s life, how would you deal with that?

So that’s a big part of Diane’s story this season. How do you negotiate that someone you deeply care about, who means a lot to you, does so many things that fly in the face of your ideals? And you can’t rationalize or legitimize them. So in this season, we really wanted to show BoJack both at his worst and his most vulnerable. We didn’t want to say that one forgives the other, necessarily, but that both exist at the same time.

That, I think, has been a really interesting thing to see in this last year. I am even just narratively interested in the statements that come out as these men are exposed from the people who are close to them in their lives, who you can tell are negotiating with that very thing. What’s the threshold for forgiveness publicly, and what’s the threshold for forgiveness privately? I think those two are different things, and they should be, but it’s hard to disentangle.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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