Why does Bojack Horseman work so well? It really is a mystery.

f5-8JkIEReactivated my Netflix account so I can watch the third season of BOJACK HORSEMAN, which is a cartoon about a very depressed and narcissistic former sitcom star. Who’s also a horse. Because in this world animals can talk. Which always seems weirdly beside the point, but whatever, I guess it’s a fun visual element.

Having seen all the reviews of my book which talk about the unlikability of its protagonist, I’m even more surprised by how well BOJACK works. Because the main character is awful. He treats everybody around him like shit. He’s completely self-obsessed. And he actively screws up everything that’s good in his life. During this season, for instance, he fires his agent, who’s also a long-time friend and former lover, for reasons that, while they rang true on a psychological level, were ultimately pretty specious. Really all he wanted was to get a rise out of her: he never had any intention of really cutting her out of his life (and indeed he goes crawling back to her during his bender).

The show is an intimate, unflinching look at the psychology of a narcissist, in every detail.

Which is, like, do we really need or want this? Does the world need or want it? And why do we watch this? What’s the point? Especially because as the series progresses, you start to wonder more and more about everybody else in it. Even the ostensibly normal characters come to seem damaged purely by virtue of the fact that they choose to continue their relationship with this person. The fact is, health people have strong boundaries, and those boundaries would keep them from ever forming a relationship with Bojack. His friends and lovers, even though you pity them because he mistreats them so terribly, start to seem less and less sympathetic, and more like they’re locked into a cycle of codependency. Eventually you realize that they too are getting something out of this relationship. So then what’s there to see? Why bother watching?

It’d be easy to say we watch for the trainwreck factor, but I don’t think that’s it. I think that we, or at least I, end up sympathizing with and rooting for Bojack. Because even though he’s a very selfish person, he’s also a person of deep feeling. Through the first two seasons, the story revolved around his attempt to make his dream picture, a biopic of the (in this world) disgraced racehorse, Secretariat. And it’s clear that the movie means something to him. This is a story that he needs to tell. And not just in a vain way. He needs to show Secretariat in all of his ugly glory.

I guess it also helps that the show is a comedy. Even the worst things don’t seem quite as awful. And it’s leavened by the sit-com format, with its A, B, and C plots (generally only one of which is truly depressing). The show is also great at pacing. It always gives you a little burst of hope right at the moment when you think Bojack is about to go off the deep end. Because he always survives. That’s the thing. No matter how bad things get, he always pulls himself out of the spiral.

This season I was just as captivated as in the past, but perhaps with less reason. It felt like all of the relationships in the show had stopped developing. In the first two seasons, his relationships with Todd (his best friend), Mr. Peanutbutter (his sometimes-rival), and Diane (his biographer) all went through a lot of change. In this one, they all, with the exception of Todd, seemed a little bit fixed in place. In the end I can’t really say that anything much happened over the course of the season. Everybody at the end felt like they were in more or less the same place as where they were at the beginning. But at least the ride was somewhat diverting.