Spoilers for Netflix's third season of BoJack Horseman past this point.
Why do we like watching TV shows that make us sad? That thought kept running through my head like a stallion on speed this weekend, while binging Netflix's outstanding third season of BoJack Horseman.
The show has absurd talking animals, ridiculous set pieces and smart pointed jokes about celebrity; but at the end of Season 3, like the two seasons that preceded it, what you're left with is an overwhelming sense of sorrow. Getting horribly depressed, on the surface, doesn't seem like a super cool way of spending your weekend; and BoJack isn't alone in pressing the melancholy aspects of comedy. So why are we, as viewers, drawn to this type of program?
BoJack, in case you missed the first two seasons, is an animated show about a former sitcom star, played by Will Arnett, who is trying to inject a second life into his career. He also happens to be a horse, and the world of the show is filled with both anthropomorphic animal creatures and actual humans. Over the course of each season, BoJack is offered the chance to change his life: through a ghostwritten memoir; his dream role in a movie; or running a campaign to get an Oscar nomination. Each time, he screws things up — and often at the expense of every relationship in his life.
It could be that we all like to gawk at a car crash: look at those folks on TV, who have it way worse than us, you might say. If I ever dealt meth in New Mexico, I'd never get in such a bad mess! By comparison, the lives of fictional characters, whether they live in Westeros or the zombie apocalypse, make all the bills you have to pay and frustrations at work look positively dandy by comparison.
It could also be that in the case of a comedy like BoJack, dealing with gloom is easier when moderated by laughter. I've often argued that dealing with life issues is easier when it comes to comedy... With a comedy, you laugh. When you laugh, endorphins are released. Endorphins help you tolerate pain. Hence, laughter isn't just metaphorically the best medicine, it can also help you more realistically deal with painful or negative situations.
But probably the most prevalent reason we like sad TV shows is because they have one main connective fiber: connection. Most TV shows (not just the sad ones) are about making a connection in some way, and how that brings us our happiness. Whether the show is about employees goofing off in an office, plane-crash survivors lost on a mysterious island, or a group of law students learning to get away with murder, at their base these shows are all about how those characters find a new family.
What BoJack does is much more revolutionary. The show posits that we, as humans (and animal-human hybrids) are born happy, but then are immediately thrust into sadness by the world around us. We're not, at our base, happy creatures who can recapture that feeling by forming a new family unit. Instead, we're ultimately and irredeemably broken from childhood to — especially — adulthood.
There's a moment in the penultimate episode of Season 3 when BoJack and his former co-star Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal) look up at the display in a planetarium. He's bowled over not by the vastness of the solar system, but how even unfathomable balls of light will eventually burn out and disappear.
"We're not doomed," BoJack tells Sarah Lynn as she falls asleep on his shoulder. "In the great grand scheme of things, we're just tiny specks that will one day be forgotten. So it doesn't matter what we did in the past, or how we'll be remembered. The only thing that matters is right now. This moment. This one, spectacular moment that we are sharing together."
And then Sarah Lynn dies. There's no better encapsulation of what BoJack is about, and how it perfectly captures the anguish of being human than these few moments... Every second of peace you might be able to grab, every moment when you're briefly happy will be torn away from you, instantly.
But that doesn't mean you don't stop searching for those moments. BoJack, at its heart, has always been about realizing there is no happy ending, there are just ephemeral moments of happiness interspersed with the unrelenting pain of being alive. And between those moments when we do get a sudden rush of endorphins — whether it's from laughter, or winning a Baby's Choice Award, or sex, or any number of truly wonderful instants — it's all about chasing that endorphin high.
So when it comes to watching sad TV shows like BoJack, part of the enjoyment (if you can call it that) is about getting those endorphins; but it's also because they reveal some essential truth about humanity. Like BoJack, we're trying to form those scant connections that allow us to imagine we're more than tiny specks that will be forgotten. Sometimes it's the people you're watching the TV show with. Sometimes it's the ideas those shows present. And sometimes it's identifying with an alcoholic horse who is going on the same pointless, hopeless journey you are.
We don't watch sad TV shows searching for happiness... Watching them is about allowing ourselves to be sad, together, for a few scant moments before our sparks are forgotten.