A send-up of gritty antihero dramas like True Detective, Philbert is at first a way for BoJack to see his flaws—alcoholism, abrasiveness—reflected back at him. But more broadly, Philbert serves as a vehicle for BoJack’s ambitious meta-critique of how Hollywood consistently glorifies, humanizes, enables, and forgives bad men—fictional or otherwise. This critique operates on a few different levels, and only grows more complex as the season wears on. One level of this assessment is institutional and doesn’t initially focus on BoJack. The episode “BoJack the Feminist” does a remarkable job of illustrating how executives, agents, publicists, and entertainment media mobilize to address a celebrity’s misdeeds and engineer his comeback—if there’s money to be made doing so.
In a clever move, BoJack has two women play key roles in reviving Vance’s career: Princess Carolyn and Ana Spanakopita (Angela Bassett), BoJack’s former publicist and ex-girlfriend. After BoJack’s botched TV appearance, Ana has her client Vance announce that he’ll no longer be part of Philbert, because he’s a feminist and the show is sexist. With her plans to hire Vance ruined, Princess Carolyn uses similar language to wave away questions about trying to cast him in the first place: “I got blinded by my desire to see myself succeed, which, since I’m a woman, is actually very feminist.”
On the one hand, such plot points recognize how feminism has been diluted into a vague PR term, a cheap virtue-signaling tool. On the other, they acknowledge that there are very real incentives for women who want to rise in the industry to protect the status quo, even if it means burnishing the reputations of men like Vance in the process. It’s story choices like these that deepen the show’s critique of Hollywood’s redemption machine: Again and again, well-intentioned, smart characters make decisions that defy simple ethical calculations.
In fact, BoJack underscores the seemingly immutable nature of sexism in the industry by weaving Diane, the closest thing the show has to a moral center, into the Philbert plot line. In one scene, Diane confronts Princess Carolyn about hiring Vance. “We both know the industry is screwed up,” Princess Carolyn sighs. “I’m not talking to the industry, I’m talking to you. Take some responsibility,” Diane says. In another scene, Diane challenges Ana about working for Vance:
Ana: Vance has a troubled past. All he’s asking for is a fresh start.
Diane: No! Why does he get that? Over and over?
Ana: He’s reformed! … Let’s say you can make him do anything you want to make things right. What would you make Vance Waggoner do now?
Diane: (Pauses.) Nothing. I don’t think he can make things right.
“When you as a woman give awful men the cover of your friendship … you are then complicit, no, you’re culpable for the terrible things they do,” Diane continues. Many viewers will come away from these scenes wholeheartedly sympathizing with Diane. She even manages to convince BoJack that Philbert is a sexist mess (“It’s posing as a deconstruction of the edifice of toxic masculinity, but it’s just using that as an excuse to relish in its own excesses”), and so he hires her as a consultant to help make the show better.