It’s Okay to Cry: The Emotional Power of Television

“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!


18 thoughts on “It’s Okay to Cry: The Emotional Power of Television

  1. I cried when Castle and Beckett got together and when Castle’s dad told him he was proud of him when they met for the first time.

  2. I’m already dreading the way these posts will absolutely WRECK me. Expect frequent suggestions. But for now let’s start with the one freshest in my mind, which is still twisting my stomach into a knot: Ten’s “I don’t want to go” on Doctor Who.
    You can literally kill me now.

    • “I don’t want to go” wrecked me for such a long time. I’m still not over it.

      I’m hoping to put in plenty of “happy tears” moments to balance the sad ones, so hopefully there won’t be too much emotional damage in the future! 😉

      • Oh good, happy tears are good 🙂 I like those! Although obviously I’m also not opposed to being emotionally wrecked. I clearly volunteer myself for it on a regular basis.

  3. This is exactly the post I’ve been trying to get out. You said everything I was thinking so beautifully. ❤

    I cry a lot more at all types of fiction now (especially television) than I did when I was younger. My emotional reactions have gotten a lot stronger as I've aged – I think I cry more now at the Boy Meets World finale than I did at the time.

    I really love it when a show can make me cry because to me, that means they've succeeded in making me truly lose myself in the moment and the characters. The pilot of Friday Night Lights made me cry when Jason Street got hurt because I felt like I was in the crowd and it brought back memories of being a cheerleader when someone on the basketball team got hurt. It's a very specific feeling of concern and sadness that becomes a tangible presence in the room and the show managed to capture that so well. The West Wing pulls this off perfectly in "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen".

    Recently, the show that has made me cry the most is Parenthood. I tear up at least once an episode and the s4 finale had me happy sobbing.

    I can't wait to see your choices for Daily Dose of Feelings and I'm sure I'll have lots of suggestions for you!

    • Thanks so much, Heather! I’m so happy you liked this post. 🙂

      I just added “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” to my list right now because I can’t believe I forgot how much that episode has made/still makes me cry.

  4. Oh good grief where do you start? TV is that special medium that allows for an emotional intimacy because it has the blessings of time to make us invest, relate and ultimate care. I have dozens if I were to really sit down and think about it. So here’s a list off the top of my head which I attribute to how powerful the moments were.

    1) I think you’ll need a full week just to do LOST – The Raft launch, taking Walt, Juliet and Sawyer at the candy machine, Not Penny’s Boat, Rose and Bernard being reunited.

    2) Roseanne – Brain-Dead Poets Society when Darlene is forced to read her poem “To Whom it May Concern”. Early seasons of Roseanne are some of the best moments in TV sitcom history. There are literally dozens you could point to for the poignancy, humor and gravity. This one ranks as my favorite because I was Darlene at 16 when it first aired and as a parent now, it’s even more profound and true.

    3) The West Wing – In Excelsis Deo when Mrs. Landingham tells Charlie why she doesn’t celebrate Christmas. If you can get through that scene without crying, you are without a heart.

    4) I Love Lucy – Hollywood at Last the entire Brown Derby sequence with William Holden I laugh in anticipation of it and cry with laughter every time I watch it. I know people like the candy shop but for me – the Brown Derby is perfection.

    5) The Cosby Show – Pilot – From the monopoly discussion about living as ‘regular people’ to the moment of pause taken after Theo talks about being loved ‘just because he’s their son’ and Cosby tells him that’s the dumbest thing he’s ever heard.

    6) Grey’s Anatomy – It’s a close call between Charles death (because of the wonderful acting) and George’s death (because of the utter shock it caused).

    7) Sex and the City – La Douleur Exquise – that’s closing scene when SJP talks about being addicted to the pain of loving someone who doesn’t love you back and you finally stop lying to yourself. It is one of the perfect raw and true moments of that series.

    8) Designing Women – They Shoot Fat Women Don’t They – The idea of this episode effected me as a teenager when it first aired. As a woman whose been through two childhood reunions, it’s harsh truth is a mirror into maturing and moving forward in life.

    9) All in the Family – Edith’s death – Archie Bunker from the moment he opens the door to her room to picking up her slipper and talking about being the one who was suppose to go first. Carol O’Conner at his finest and the perfect tribute to a man who is lost after 40+ years without the compass in his life.

    10) Quantum Leap – The series finale, the entire last 10 minutes about going home and only to come to the point when the screen fades to black and tells us Dr. Sam Becket never returned home.

    There are so many, but these are ones that stop me dead in my tracks just thinking about them.

    • I love all of your suggestions! And you are 100% right about needing at least a week for Lost moments! I love you for mentioning the Juliet/Sawyer vending machine scene because that’s actually the scene that inspired me to come up with this new feature. It’s still one of my favorite scenes in TV history in terms of its emotional resonance and gorgeous acting.

      • What I love about LOST is the unpredictability of who we grew to care about and invest in. That Juliet and Sawyer became the great love story of this show was such an amazing and wonderful surprise. They handled it with such a deft hand and the vending machine was so indicative of that. I can’t believe it is the scene that inspired your new feature – FUN! I knew you were a kindred spirit! 🙂

        • “What I love about LOST is the unpredictability of who we grew to care about and invest in.”

          This is so true. When we first met Juliet, I wasn’t sure what to feel about her, but I was surprised in the best possible way by how much I grew to care about and relate to her. The fact that she became my favorite character speaks to how well that show was able to make you invest in characters you never imagined you could care about. And her relationship with Sawyer also took me by pleasant surprise with how it took my mindset from “I like both of these characters and hate the Kate/Sawyer/Jack triangle so I wouldn’t be opposed to them getting together” to “This is the most mature, beautiful, and powerful love story on Lost” over the course of just a few episodes.

  5. Holy cow Katie, this hits the nail on the head for me in SO many ways. I have cried uncountable times over any number of TV shows through the years. Those examples you gave, Kate Beckett, Sydney & Jack Bristow, Jim & Pam? I watched all of them too, and I vividly remember the emotional impact each has had on me. Others that immediately come to mind are Parenthood, Friday Night Lights, and ER, all of which have made me cry uncontrollably at times. There are so, SO many, and I could go on for a very long time here, but sadly, it’s just time I don’t have at present. BUT…I did want to take a moment to say that this summed up feelings I don’t think I’ve ever been able to put into words. Thanks.

  6. I so agree with everything you said. I’ve always felt like television shows have moved me more than films or books. I always cry during every series finale I watch because I know it’s the end. A suggestion for the Daily Dose of Feelings: the Fringe series finale when Walter tells Peter “You are my very favorite thing.” I think you may have already written about that but that part just made me sob.

  7. After running out of shows to watch on Netflix, I decided to try a Korean drama. LOVED it, but I think it opened the flood gate for some emotions I’ve had dammed up for a while. Now I feel like the littlest things make me cry at the drop of a hat. If you need a good dose of romance and tears, try You are Beautiful or Flower Boy Ramen Shop.

    • I both love and hate (in a good way—if that makes sense) when TV shows make me so emotionally vulnerable even after I’m done watching them. Thanks for the recommendations!

  8. Pingback: Fangirl Thursday: Making an Impact | Nerdy Girl Notes

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