“It’s just a TV show.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that in my life—usually while I’m crying into my sweatshirt sleeve or just letting the tears fall to the point where they end up going all the way down my neck. (I often judge the emotional resonance of something by its ability to produce these “neck tears.”)
TV shows make me cry often and they make me cry hard, but I don’t think that’s a phenomenon reserved for me alone. Even those skeptics who’d roll their eyes at my sobbing over the same episode of Alias I’ve seen 50 times (“The Telling” for anyone wondering) have almost certainly found themselves choked up over one television moment or another.
Ned Stark. Charlie Pace. Dr. Mark Green. Mrs. Landingham. Omar Little. The mere mention of those names is enough to put a lump in the throat of even the most cynical TV viewer. I don’t know a person who hasn’t been moved to tears at least once in their lives over “just a TV show.”
What is it about television that produces such a strong emotional response from its audience? Why is it that no book or film—not even The Fault in Our Stars or Toy Story 3—has been able to move me as strongly as the Boy Meets World series finale continues to move me to this day?
Television is a personal medium, an intimate medium. We let its characters into our lives and our homes for weeks that often turn into years. Books are finished within a few days (or weeks/months if it’s one of the A Song of Ice and Fire books); films end after a few hours. But television shows keep coming back. Because of this, we watch characters develop with a complexity no other medium can replicate. Those characters become a part of our lives, a part of our routines, a part of our families.
When I think of what makes television so emotionally resonant, it always comes back to the characters and the amount of time we get to spend with them. We are able to watch them grow, and we’re able to grow with them. Their journeys often inspire our own. We all have television characters we “met” at just the right time in our lives to feel like their path mirrored our own. Their successes feel like our successes, and their struggles feel painfully relatable.
Sometimes, an entire show mirrors an arc in our lives. When Alias ended, I was about to graduate from high school, and I began watching the show when I was 13. So when the final scene concluded, I cried not because of what had happened to Sydney Bristow but because the show that had been with me through the entirety of my high school years ended—just like those high school years were about to end. The Lost series finale aired the day after I graduated from college. Just as Jack Shephard had to accept that one part of his life was over and another one needed to begin, I also had to accept the end of my life as I knew it and the start of something unknown. In both of those cases, I was so thankful for the kind of catharsis only television can provide—a way to work through my emotions with characters I’d come to love over the course of many years.
I love television in a way that’s different from film or literature—not more intensely or more devoutly, just differently. I love television because, unlike films and books, it delivers emotional punches that keep coming if you pick the right shows. Yes, I cried several times while reading the Harry Potter series, but that only happened every few years. Compare that with Grey’s Anatomy which, in its early heyday, could make me weep on almost a weekly basis for the better part of three years.
I love television because it’s the only medium where I cry more often because I’m happy or moved by beauty than because I’m sad. Once again, it all comes back to the characters. When you spend so much time with a group of people—real or fictional—you get attached to them. You want to see them happy, loved, and successful because you’ve seen them broken, lonely, and lost. There’s a depth to characters’ emotional journeys that can only exist on television because of its unique mixture of the visual power of film and the intricacy of a great work of literature. When good things happen for characters I love, it often moves me to tears because I’ve actually seen their journey to get to that place of happiness, and if the writers and actors do their jobs well enough, I feel as if I’ve been on that long journey with them.
I watched Kate Beckett struggle for four years to move on from her mother’s murder before finally accepting happiness. I watched Sydney and Jack Bristow spend five years trying to build their broken father-daughter relationship. I watched Jim and Pam’s love story develop over the course of nine years. I’ve watched countless other characters fight and fall in love, succeed and fail, live and die. And you can be sure I cried my way through all of it.
Being a nerd is all about passion—it’s all about feeling a connection to something that moves us to become enthusiastic about it. When you care about something, it’s never “just” anything—it’s important; it matters because you make it matter. Television matters to me because it moves me like no other medium.
It’s not embarrassing to admit that television makes us feel. That’s what it’s supposed to do. Interesting television makes us think, but great television makes us feel. So I want to take some time to celebrate those great television moments that made me feel and moved me to tears over the course of my many years as a viewer. Starting tomorrow, I‘m going to post a Daily Dose of Feelings, a moment from a television show that celebrates just how good this medium can be and how deeply it can make us feel. Some of these moments may be sad, but many more will be happy—the emotional power of television is never more evident, in my opinion, than when it makes you cry tears of joy.
If you have any suggestions for moments you want to see included, feel free to leave a comment, an email, a tweet, or a Facebook message about your most emotional television scenes. I want to make this a long-running feature, so the more moments the better!