The Crying Game: Why Television Brings Us to Tears

by: David Lavery / Brunel University

August 21, 2005: the airing of the last episode of HBO’s Six Feet Under‘s five season run. At its end Claire, the youngest of the Fisher children, prepares to leave for New York, where a job in photography awaits. After tearful goodbyes on the porch of the Fisher and Diaz Funeral Home (even her dead brother Nate is there to bid her adieu), she drives away in her Toyota Prius and, with Sia’s “Breathe Me” playing on the mix CD boyfriend (and future husband) Ted has given her for the trip, heads east. As she drives, sobbing at times uncontrollably, we witness scenes from the future lives of each of SFU‘s principle characters and then, in turn, their deaths: Ruth passes away in bed with her surviving family at her side, Keith is killed in a robbery, David (at a picnic) and Federico (on a cruise ship) succumb to apparent heart attacks, Brenda dies as her brother Billy drones on. Though it is by no means clear whether all these culminations are to be taken as the driver’s own mindscreen imaginings or part of the official narrative itself, Claire herself is not spared: she dies in her bed, at the age of 102, in a room filled with her award-winning photographs. We linger for a moment on her cataract-scarred eyes and then, in a stunning match cut, return to her still fresh, beautiful, young eyes as they gaze out on the road ahead.

Screencap of Claire

Screencap of Claire

And I, sitting in my living room in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, have erupted into irrepressible crying. Though possibly my most intense mediated weeping, it was certainly not my first. The ending of To Kill a Mockingbird (“He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning”) has made me blubber since I was a teenage boy. At the age of forty, the ending of a matinee of Field of Dreams (“Hey Dad, do you want to have a catch?”) left me sitting alone in the theatre trying to gather myself before I took my salty eyes out into the afternoon sun.

Now that television is my scholar-fan obsession, the living room is my vale of tears. Northern Exposure, The Sopranos, NYPD Blue, Deadwood, Gilmore Girls, Veronica Mars–these and other shows have often unmanned me. But no single television show has opened the tear ducts quite like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy being given the “Class Protector” award in “The Prom”; Anya’s poignant speech in “The Body”1; Buffy’s death (her second) in “The Gift”; the final conversation in “Chosen,” the series finale (“Yeah Buffy, what are we gonna to do now?”)–these and a score of other moments jerked my tears. The tears I shed were part of my bonding with the show–at least as important as the countless laughs it inspired.

Buffy and Class Protector Award

Buffy and Class Protector Award

Certain I was not alone in the regularity of my crying before the box, I sought the opinions of a number of colleagues, all television scholars, as I prepared to write this column, and though I make no claim to a systematic sampling, I found the responses of great interest. Here are some discoveries of note:

• A wide variety of television shows, from Champion the Wonder Horse to Neighbours, Roseanne, The West Wing, Desperate Housewives,2 and Grey’s Anatomy, have opened the flood gates.

Desperate Housewives

Desperate Housewives

• Several noted that endings–of episodes, seasons, series–often prove to be more tear-jerky.3

• One correspondent (Burkhead) observed that “The common cause of my tears is that in each case I was responding to a presentation of my ideals made manifest – love vanquishing evil, the good politician coming out on top, America putting aside its prejudices for the greater good. I suspect my tears were equally a result of joy and the sadness of knowing that I have to rely upon television to create goodness.”

• Others found a distinct difference between film and TV (and literary) tears. One (Byers) gave television pre-eminence:

I have cried over films, but the experience isn’t the same (even films I’ve watched over and over again, even ones I own and watch at home). I have cried over the beauty of films and over the narratives, but I think I cry with the characters on TV. The narratives may be sad or painful but I cry often from the connection I have to the ongoing story (I don’t think I’ve ever cried – except on occasion for tears of joy – at the end of a film), to the characters and so on … books have made me cry too, certainly. Sometimes when they were so good and came to an end before I was ready to be done with them. And there have been characters in books that I have loved deeply and cried with… so maybe, for me, TV is more like literature in that way. But with TV it’s more dramatic. It brings together so many things, the story, the visuals and the music and so on…

While another (Robson) ranked literature first in the crying game:

By far, for me, the most tear inducing is literature–I can say that across the board, romance or not, that literature has usually prompted the tear-swells. My favorite novel–Love in the Time of Cholera, makes me cry every time I read it–sometimes, I start crying before the parts that make me cry in the novel, in anticipation of that moment. And I’ve found that when re-watching Grey’s [Anatomy], the same thing happens–I’ll start crying before the moment, and when the moment comes, I’m downright sobbing–so Grey’s has been the most like literature for me. I guess that it’s because it takes you somewhere that you don’t quite expect. That these characters–usually the ones you hardly know–feel real and true to you, and it’s like you’re living through them (not unlike how I feel when reading a great piece of fiction).

• One commentator (Wilcox) remembers a strong childhood aversion to tear-jerking on the sofa: “My mom and sister enjoyed a good cry, but I hated feeling manipulated (I still do).” As an adult, nonetheless, television has brought her to tears (Buffy evoked again), especially depictions of sacrifice.

• Another (Turnbull) notes that her preference is to “cry alone.”

Crying is, of course, an age-old mystery. In a profound and poignant book from the middle of the last century, German phenomenological anthropologist Helmuth Plessner, writing a year after we had been to the moon, wondered how it could be that despite such an achievement we still have no valid, philosophically sophisticated theory of why we laugh and cry. How can it be, Plessner ponders, that we have barely begun to plumb the mystery of these dual, inextricably human manifestations? For the Greeks, the mystery was linked somehow to enantiodromia, the tendency of all things to turn into their opposite. Good and evil, light and dark, hot and cold, laughing and crying–all are united behind the scenes, each needing the other, in a “marriage of heaven and hell,” in order to achieve full existence. In our happiest/darkest moments we have all glimpsed enantiodromia in action, as crying becomes laughter and laughs tears–one form of hysteria morphing into another. What was dramatic theory, Aristotle to the 18th Century, thinking by insisting that each keep to its quarters? Shakespeare, and Buffy, knew better.

Helmuth Plessner

Helmuth Plessner

It would be arrogant, of course, for me to even suggest that this column might offer some unified field theory of crying. My ambition today is much more modest: to open and inspire discussion about the tears we shed before the tube. There are so many questions we need to ask.4 Do the Aristotelian rules of catharsis stll apply? How does gender affect crying at television? (Yes, all my correspondents are female.) Nationality? Are long-running series more likely to produce tears? We need to wipe away our tears and begin the work.

My thanks to Kim Akass (London-based independent scholar and editor), Michele Byers (Saint Mary’s University, Canada), Cynthia Burkhead (University of North Alabama, USA), Rhonda Wilcox (Gordon College, USA), Janet McCabe (Manchester Metropolitan University, UK), Hillary Robson (Middle Tennessee State University, USA), and Sue Turnbull (LaTrobe University, Australia) for sharing their thoughts on television and tears.

1 “I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s, there’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And, and Xander’s crying and not talking, and, and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why.”
2 Interestingly, two of my respondents, Akass and McCabe respectively, close friends and writing partners, did and didn’t cry at the same Desperate Housewives episode. For McCabe, the explanation lay in household “flow”: her viewing of the pivotal Desperate scene, which she found moving and sad, came after dealing with a teething baby and cleaning up the dinner dishes. She “wasn’t in the TV zone” and had not achieved the “intense engagement” necessary to be moved by television.
3 For more on endings, see Lavery, “Apocalyptic Apocalypses.”
4 As in so many other ways, television is film’s poor stepchild when it comes to understanding the respective media’s generation of tears. Neale, Harper and Porter, and Turnbull, for example, have all offered excellent studies of movie crying.

Works Cited

Harper, Sue and Vincent Porter. “Moved to Tears: Weeping in the Cinema in Post-War Britain.” Screen 37.2 (Summer 1996): 152-73.

Lavery, David. “Apocalyptic Apocalypses: The Narrative Eschatology of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies, Number 9 (2003).

Neale, Steve. “Melodrama and Tears.” Screen 27 (November-December 1986): 6-22.

Plessner, Helmuth. Laughing and Crying: A Study of the Limits of Human Behavior. Trans. James Spencer Churchill and Marjorie Grene. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1970.

Turnbull, Sue. “Beyond Words: The Return of the King and the Pleasures of the Text” (forthcoming in The Cultural Reception of The Lord of the Rings. Ed. Martin Barker [New York: Peter Lang, 2007]).

Image Credits:
1. Screencap of Claire
2. Buffy and Class Protector Award
3. Desperate Housewives
4. Helmuth Plessner

Please feel free to comment.


  • this article demonstrates that we are unaware of why we cry when we watch television or movies. I think we get put into a trance when we watch television and we think we are living the character’s lives. Once we are attached, our emotions can run wild. We laugh and cry uncontrollably because we think we are living someone else’s life. This is why we love television, it is an escape from reality where we don’t have to live our own lives, but some one else’s.

  • Max Liberty-Point

    There Wasn’t an Anhydrous Lacrimal Gland In the House

    I agree with Byers in that a film’s capability to trigger tears is more powerful than that of television’s. TV has become less of a novelty over the years and thusly it is harder for me to be fully engaged in a program. There is something about a film that grabs my attention and refuses to let go. Maybe its because the scoring, editing, and shooting techniques of films seem less formulaic than those of TV episodes. In my opinion, TV could do better. The end of this article mentions that “television is an escape from reality,” which may be its downfall. It seems to me that the more real something seems that more connected and related I can feel to it and in turn be more liable to cry. And just for the record, I don’t cry, I’m much to macho for it, but the times I’ve been closest to shedding a tear has been in front of the silver screen.

  • Does TV’s “lower” status as “mere entertainment” provide an easier outlet for us to express other emotional fears and frustrations through tears? Perhaps by coming directly into our homes and affording us more privacy than in the theater, and presenting itself (as McKee writes in this same issue) as the more friendly and welcoming medium, television makes itself easier for us to sit and cry over.

    Reflecting on my own experiences crying with and over TV, two cases stick out in my mind. I watched the final episodes of ‘Sex and the City’ via videotape shortly after moving away from New York City, and possibly should have been hospitalized for dehydration due to all of the tears I shed. Was I simply reacting to the end of the show? The end of my college years in New York, during which I watched the show? My own departure? It could be any or all of the three–in this sense, television allows us the space to feel catharsis for a variety of personal issues.

    Similarly, my friends and I gathered to watch ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ each week, and often found ourselves sheepishly, silently weeping over the unfortunate deaths that occur. We found ourselves most moved by deaths of characters coded as “parents,” and young adults who died before doing what they wanted in life, as opposed to the deaths of children or bomb-squad technicians. Perhaps these former two groups are more relevant to our contemporary concerns? Does the more “personal” element of television coming into the home make our reactions more personal as well?

    In any case, an interesting issue, and one worth considering each time we reach for the tissues.

  • When I read your description of the last scene in Six Feet Under it almost made me cry remembering when I saw it too. In fact, for this film class I’m taking we had to do a scene analysis, so I went on you tube looking for some “Six Feet Under” and I came across that final scene, watched it and bawled. I’ve never really gotten into “Buffy” so I can’t really relate, but I’m sure it’s moving also. Nevertheless one of the reasons that I attribute to TV being so much more of a tear jerker than films, is that fact that you physically spend so much time learning about these people, watching their character develop, and the phases they go through. A film is no more than a three hour span, which tries to convey the same closeness, although I do feel there are some pretty moving films out there. Just like relationships with people, the more time you spend with them, the more you know them for better or for worse, and in the end are so much more affected by seeing them go. That may also be why literature is so moving, because reading a book generally takes more time to finish, but mostly I feel that it has such an impact because it allows for the imagination to make everything up, the way you want it to. There is no image or profile being trust at you, you simply take these words and make your own character, which is amazing. I love reading more than the two combined.

  • A few weeks ago I watched this Greys Anatomy episode which made me cry hysterically. Even though I knew that the main character of the show was not going to die as she struggled to stay alive on the screen before me, I for some reason was still crying. I was watching the episode with a 17 year old boy who was visiting America from Sweden and he thought I was absolutely out of my mind. He showed no emotion despite the fact that like me, he had seen all the seasons and had formed relationships with the characters. When I got home I watched this episode with my boyfriend who like me cried even though he hasn’t seen all the episodes like me and the Swedish boy, therefore his attachment wasn’t as great. This made me think, ok it is just not girls who cry but then why would the Swedish boy not cry and look at me like I am crazy when I did? I think the author of this article hit the nail on the head when he used the term “unmanned” to explain the shame that he felt for crying at the end of the episode. I think that men feel as though they can’t cry over a stupid TV show, it’s just not masculine. Because my boyfriend feels more comfortable about his masculinity around me then this boy I barely know he was able to express his feelings even though they were not considered by the masses to be masculine. Although I think that there is more shame for men in crying, I think there is shame in crying for both the sexes, I know when I am watching a sad scene and someone asks if I am crying I always reply, “Sniff sniff. No.” and I think that this is why we like to cry alone.

  • I’m agreeing with Kate’s post. An audience member spends 2-3 hours generally with a film character, as opposed to the possible hundreds of hours one could spend with a television character. One becomes a very extended friend or associate with a television character by spending hours inside a character’s depicted psyche. Audience members share a tremendous amount of time witnessing the decisions and thought processes that create a character’s arch (proliferative development. It is only human to feel elated when a well know character triumphs, and feel morose when negative events happen in a character’s life. Tears are a testament to television’s ability to make a profound impact on the audience. I can’t relate with Mr.Lavery’s program choices, not a Buffy fan and I’ve never watched Six Feet Under (and wasn’t Six Feet Under on Showtime?). I can relate to other shows however, like HBO’s Entourage. At the end of Season 3 , when the film agent character Ari is fired (sorry if this is a spoiler!)I was almost brought to tears. I had watched this character develop closely for three seasons, and to see him fired, made me kind of emotionally crestfallen. It is amazing and slightly disturbing how television can create relationships between characters and audiences.

  • Even if you have never cried during or after a book, television show, or movie, you at least know someone who has. The idea of someone crying during a sad movie has almost come cliché. So every one at least can relate to crying during a book, television show, or movie, whether they have cried during one or not. I believe that people cry during movies, television shows, or movies because they form a connection with that character or those characters. However, one has a different type of a connection with the character depending on the medium. In film, one cries because they wish they were that person and that person either succeeds or fails. In books, one cries because they have spent a long time with that character and they have a connection. In television, one cries because they have spent a long time with that character and they can relate to that character. When one cries during any kind of visual medium, it is always during the climax of the story or when a character dies. When one cries during the climax, it is because they feel some kind of a connection with that character or characters and the character or characters either failed or succeeded in a challenge that often represents some kind of ideal, “The common cause of my tears is that in each case I was responding to a presentation of my ideals made manifest – love vanquishing evil, the good politician coming out on top, America putting aside its prejudices for the greater good”. One connects with a character because they either see themselves in them or they like the character in some way. No one ever cries when the bad guy dies. When one cries when a character dies, it is because they are sad the connection they had with that character is over. As I have learned in class, one must try to put them self into the world of a film. Movies are not in the here and now, but in some kind of alternate reality. Thus, one cannot truly relate to that character, but rather one can see some part of them self in that character or the character represents some kind of ideals the viewer finds important. So when Will Smith saves that world in Independence Day, the viewer relates to the ideal of good conquering evil, not flying around in a spaceship and shooting aliens. People cry while reading novels because they have spent a long time with this character and they can relate to the character in some way. Like in films, the story often takes place in some kind of fantasyland and one must connect to the character because one can see some part of themselves in that character or the character represents some kind of ideals the viewer finds important. However, unlike in movies, one has spent more time with the character in books. It takes longer to read a book than watch a movie and often times a book with follow the character through an extended period of time. So the character in a book because a friend or family member. I believe that is why some of the author’s colleagues found that they cried more often in literature rather than in film. One cries during a television show because they connect with a character in a more realistic way. Television shows usually take place in current times, so one can relate to all of the issues the character faces. So when one cries when a character gets picked on in school, the viewer can relate to getting picked on in school. Also television series last over a long period, therefore the viewer becomes more attached to the character and the character becomes like a friend or a family member like in literature. Overall, the main reason why people cry during books, movies, or television is because of the connection they have with that character or issue. The connection draws out one’s emotions and causes them to cry. The stronger the connection, the more one will cry.

  • Films and Literature Trigger My Tears

    Television programs don’t seem to jerk my senses…it feels to fake…plots may twist my mind and make me think, but my tears are far harder to reach. Literature, such as the Slave Narratives by Frederick Douglas made me cry consistently…real pain…beautiful use of words, syntax and rhythm of words with the combination of deep and complex characters hit my soul. Films for example, Life is Beautiful have the most effect on me; music, lighting, camera angle, physical expression, and symbolic narrative push me to tears and have me walking out wondering and wanting to produce and create a film that makes people think and cry like that. Television plots are to predictable and stereotypical for me to feel an intelligent and respectful connection with, my mind criticizes and constantly sees the errors and representational language of its shows. I despise advertisements, especially because they kill any possible mood for an emotional meltdown. Commercial breaks remind me that T.V only exists for advertisment and consumer demands.

  • I also cried at the end of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I have never been moved enough in any television show to make me cry out of pitty but out of laughter is a different story. Married with Children, though ronchy at times, was certainly a show that I have died laughing at before. The show can be so cruel some times and with a history of watching the show certain episodes are funnier than they would otherwise be. Many shows on television are aimed at producing comedy rather than an emminse sadness. In High School my English teacher told me that in writing, the key to making somebody cry is making them laugh first. I find that this is also true in movies and probably the same with television shows as well, though in television shows I have not been impacted in such a way yet. I will keep my eyes pealed.

  • Let the Tears Ensue

    This article, ironically, verbalizes something that I very much mused over just a few months ago, even more ironically, after the final episode of Six Feet Under. I had watched this episode by myself at night in my room. I, as the author of the article did, burst into tears of unequivocal sadness upon its conclusion. What struck me, however, is the next day when I watched it again with other people, how my reactions to the show changed in a different setting. Upon second viewing, I did not nearly have as emotional of a reaction to the show and neither did the people I was watching it with. I realized at that time how much the venue in which you view television can affect your experience with it. I think if Television is viewed communally, then the reactions of the other people both dictate and validate the emotions you then feel as you watch the same program. For me, when I watched the Six Feet Under finale, I had concluded a TV show that I had been faithfully watching for the past 5 years. The characters in the show had been part of my life for half of a decade, and so when something of such prolongued involvement ends, it is as if a chapter of my life had ended. Because I had that time to let the show resonate and become part of my life to the extent that I did, it meant something completely different to me than it did to my friends, for example, because they had only wathced it a few months. I think Television has such profound emotional clout because since it is viewed serially throughout a long period of time, that it slowly builds itself into our [emotional] psyche, so that we’re virtually acquainted with the characters on a show as we would be with a close friend. Specifically with Six Feet Under, the “death” of the characters on the show is like a death in the family. There will always be that niche the show once occupied until it was tragically revoked.

  • Neidi Dominguez

    Yes, I cry too…

    I have been labeled emotional or “chillona”, my favorite one since it reminds me of my mom when she refers to me crying watching a movie or TV show, but of course she also cries, not in front of me though. I have no problem crying my eyes out if I feel like it, at the moment when tears form and begin to quickly escape the border of my eyes I could careless who is around me, I let it out. I think that the labels I’ve been given do not bother me because I can truly say that enjoy crying when I feel like it, maybe not the feeling but I can’t hold it otherwise it would bother me for the rest of day. However for many other women that I know this is not an easy task. I have many friends that might feel like crying in response to something they might be watching but will do everything possible to hold their tears in, in response to appearing weak or “girlie” like, since “only woman cry”. I have to admit that this really saddens me and bothers me because I feel that they are just pretending to be someone they are not, most importantly they suppress their feelings and emotions in response to gendered stereotypes. They pretend to be “strong” and “though”, to who’s definition of “strong” and “though”? To appear more ‘put-together’, I guess that most mean that people most think I am struggling with depression all the time then. All these thoughts then translate to, “who makes the rules?” It might sound like a very abstract question but I am trying to ask why do TV shows and movies make us cry? Who wants us to cry? I think that these questions can be answered from many multiple perspectives but I am suggesting that we think about the corporate TV owners; the top people, the people that get the money. Yes I cry too, but I also understand that the there is a purpose of making me cry, because I develop relationship with the characters and I begin to care about them and therefore I want to know what happens to them and I continue to watch therefore adding to ratings that translate to money for the people in the top.

  • Why TV affects us.

    I don’t think I’ve ever cried because of a television show, although I think I understand why someone would. With a film, you only have about 90-120 minutes to reel the audience in close enough to produce emotional connection with the characters. Often times this is successful, because the film experience encourages people to become immersed in the narrative, to sit back, relax, and let the film become their world. Television on the other hand has a much harder time immersing the audience in the experience. The screen being watched is much smaller, the stories are frequently interrupted by commercial breaks, and audiences have to wait a full week in-between each episode. All of these things work to draw the viewer out of the experience, so then why do people become so attached to these shows? The answer lies within the repetitive nature of the medium. Television works to convince the viewer to accept and believe in the world they are watching by sheer repetition. If every hour on a 24, Jack Bauer saves another person’s life, the viewer is slowly conditioned to accept that this is normal, and expects it to continue. That way, if and when Bauer finally fails to save a person’s life, the viewer is hit with an immense emotional reaction, because what is happening goes against their expectations and disappoints them. So if one enjoys the happiness of a character on a show by this conditioning process, that person might cry, or at least become quite sad, whenever that character isn’t happy. But the promise that good things will happen again is what brings the viewer back next week.

  • Crying w/ Televison

    David Lavery brings up the topic of why we as the audience feels compelled to cry when watching certain television shows. It is an interesting topic that brings up a vast number of answers. My personal answer to this question would be that through the course of watching a television show, episode by episode, we start to form connections with the characters. We, being the audience start to form bonds with the characters. Even though the character’s are not real, to us, we feel as though they are friends. So when they go though something hard or have something heart breaking happen to them, we watch with high emotions because we have come to know these people as friends. This is especially true for shows that we watch from the beginning. On the show 24, when Jack Bower’s wife died, I sat on my couch completely shocked. How could they kill off his wife? The women Jack had been struggling to protect all season long. I cried for him and I cried for his daughter because I felt the character’s pain. In reality this seems a little strange though. After all, they are just fictitious character’s on a television show, Jack’s wife did not real die, and Jack, believe it or not, is not a real person. So why did I get so emotional? Because to me those character’s are staples of my life, characters that I follow once a week for an hour at a time, and to me, as odd as it may sound they are like family to me.

  • Art eliciting Emotion

    Though television programming isn’t always recognized as art, there are definitely quality shows on television today that display unique creativity. As important pieces of art should do, television evokes thought and elicits an emotional response from its viewers. Contemporary shows in society come fully complete with melodramatic music, which audiences read as a code and interpret as a way of how to feel emotionally to the text. Through dramatic dialogues, deep character development, emotion-inciting music and complex and serious plot occurrences, viewers are finding it easier to connect and relate with television characters, becoming emotionally attached. In serious dramatic events, particular aspects of public discourse teach society when one should emote and it is because of these specific ideologies that influence us that we find it appropriate to cry during the viewing of a fictitious television program.

  • “But no single television show has opened the tear ducts quite like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy being given the “Class Protector” award in “The Prom”;”

    Okay, what gets me is not this part, but when — sniff — that cover of “Wild Horses” starts and then the camera cuts to Angel, and they dance. I am seriously tearing up right here in the middle of the airport thinking about it.

    Other teary Buffyverse moments:

    The series finale of Buffy. I have only been able to watch it once; so many parts are emotionally overwhelming. I lost it when Willow called the Slayers (“every girl a Slayer”), then it showed all the girls. All right, tears have officially fallen right now, in the middle of the airport. Anyway, the episode of Angel in which Angel fought that monster with the regenerative blood, got some of it mixed in with a cut on his hand, then was brought back to life but had to give his life in that deal with the Powers That Be, and they arranged it so that everyone except for Angel would forget about that one day, but Angel had to carry the burden of the memory…sigh.

    I’m generally an easy mark when it comes to this stuff, so I don’t watch too many sad movies or television shows. Like what others have said on this thread, I believe there is some identification involved and that this is a rhetorical phenomenon. Kenneth Burke has written quite well about identification.

  • Its great to see the variety of responses this article evokes. I agree with Megan O and Galen in that I find that the frequent commercial breaks on TV prevent shows from establishing the sustained emotional pitch that I need to emotionally commit to characters/story. Its worth considering that the especially emotional moments on broadcast TV are designed to lead up to the commercial/episode break – to keep you tuned in (despite the fact that you’re now crying during an upbeat ad for auto insurance).

    There are also so many moments on so many shows that seem specifically geared towards making the audience tear up (the swelling of a minor chord played on strings on the soundtrack, the close up of a character tearing up, characters professing their love). I feel as though I’ve built up a resistance to these tropes, knowing that there will be a few during every show I watch. The stakes for TV characters are so low – I’ve come to expect the possible resurrection of moribund relationships or even dying characters, whereas in films (and possibly some HBO shows), characters and relationships really do end for good. But obviously, it works on a lot of other people, so there must be something else to it (probably having to do with prolonged exposure to characters).

  • David Hesmondhalgh

    I wanted to cry at the final episode of Six Feet Under – but with laughter, because it was so utterly inept. All that bad make-up and high emotion. Stunning match cut? I can’t see it myself. Someone somewhere else in Flow says that Six Feet Under was the only TV programme that made him ‘want to be a better person’. I don’t actually know what that means. But I do ‘know’ the last two series went downhill very fast indeed, and it seems to me that many people were too much caught up in the hype surrounding the programme to acknowledge this. Let the HBO backlash begin in earnest. They’ve done some tremendous work, but plenty of middlebrow guff too.

  • i dont know where else to ask this but this site came to me just after having one of my breakdowns so heres my question for thos educated in such matters

    Why is it that at funerals, seeing someone i know get hurt, getting hurt, anything that a normal human owould shed tears over in general dosnt bring a drop to my eyes yet watching a show like house or even csi if the right moment happens i completely breakdown into hysteria for a few moments until i gather myself. this has been happening for years now and its lead me to question my own humanity at times. if anyone could please offer some insight or has questions they can ask me to gain insight to offer please e-mail me. i dont want to miss a responce on this page due to my adhd lol. thanks in advance, George

  • In television and in life we bond most with those we share tears with, and laughter too. Television’s seriality is one of its strongest connective forces to an audience member and so in order for it to move us we must feel bonded with the characters in a different way than to film. A study like this is extremely relevent to contemporary television as it is necessary to begin to understand why we feel so strongly for our television shows and why they make us weep so frequently. When Joyce died i cried continuously throughout the entire episode, that’s almost 40 minutes constant flow of tears. Why do we cry so whole-heartedly for those we’ve never met and we know don’t really exist? Maybe it is because this disconnect allows us to purge properly and to rinse clean the fear of losing our loved ones, i am not sure… A very interseting subject. Fay Kelly

  • Wow, that’s a really clever way of thnnikig about it!

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  • I found this article to be particularly interesting in the wake of Sherlock’s second series finale, “The Reichenbach Fall.”

    SPOILER ALERT (If you haven’t seen this episode and don’t want to know what happens, do not read any further!)

    In the episode, Sherlock Holmes sacrifices his own life to protect the colleagues that have become his greatest friends throughout the first two series. He is forced by the main villain, Moriarty, to confirm the false rumors that he is in fact, a fraud, and then to commit suicide. If he does not do these things, Moriarty will have John Watson, Mrs. Hudson and Detective Inspector Lestrade all murdered. Sherlock dies in shame, after lying to John on the phone, confirming the fraud story and then jumping off of the St Bartholomew’s Hospital roof. John, who is standing near the building, witnesses this entire event.

    After Sherlock’s funeral, John has a private moment at the grave, where he tells Sherlock what he had never told him in life—that he was his best friend and the most human person he ever knew.

    After watching this finale, I immediately turned to the internet to see what the collective fan reaction was to this unexpected and incredibly sad ending. It turns out that I was not the only one weeping continuously during the last ten minutes of the episode. In fact, that was essentially the collective fan reaction. In the online community, the deep emotional impact of this episode actually has its own title, known as “Reichenbach Feels.” Viewers had grown deeply attached to the characters on the show, and when they witnessed one of them die, they felt a kind of grief, not only for the lost character, but for the other characters that would have to carry on without him.

    As Lavery says in his article, it is difficult to describe what specifically draws these emotions from us when watching a fictional program. However, if you have never cried in front of a show and want to witness what it’s like to get emotionally involved in television, simply Google “Reichenbach Feels.”

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