Why you get sad when your favorite TV show goes off the air
Having 'Mad Men' withdrawal? A social psychologist explains why.
"Mad Men," which debuted in 2007, aired its final episode Sunday night – bringing to a close our long fascination with Don Draper, Peggy Olson, and the other supporting characters of a bygone time. Indeed, posters promoting this final season had the simple slogan: The end of an era.
With 121 million viewers, the series finale of "M*A*S*H" is still one of the most-watched television shows in American history. Since then, we’ve said goodbye to many beloved shows including: "Friends," "Seinfeld," "The Sopranos," "Breaking Bad." With each one, we feel like we are losing a close friend.
For many fans of TV shows, seeing their favorite fictional characters walk off into the sunset can be just as hard as saying goodbye to a real-life friend. Spend enough time with a character from "Seinfeld" or "Mad Men" in your living room, and when they leave it can actually cause you to feel sad. That is the finding of research by Professor Jonathan Cohen of the University of Haifa in Israel, who studies our friendships with TV characters. Yes, that's a real field of study.
Our connections with any fictional character – from Harry Potter to Tony Soprano – are called "para-social" relationships. "We tend to develop relationships with these characters, and they develop more over time," Cohen told From The Grapevine.
Research in this area dates back to the 1950s – with the advent of television – when Americans began to feel a sense of connection to the people on their TV screen: Newscasters and talk show hosts, singers and sportscasters. Later, this evolved into relationships with fictional characters from TV shows.
Take, for example, one of the most popular sitcoms of recent memory. More than 52 million Americans watched the finale of "Friends" on May 6, 2004. Cohen's research found that fans of the show felt the most intense break-up with Rachel. "She was also perceived to be the most popular," explains Cohen. "And people had the strongest relationship with her."
Further research indicates that fans often give Rachel and other fictional characters they care about the benefit of the doubt, just like they would a real friend.
"The most important thing to remember," explains Cohen, "is that para-social relationships are not a compensation mechanism for lack of other relationships. People who have good, strong relationships also have many para-social relationships."
That's comforting news to fans of "Mad Men" who will, barring reruns, no longer be able to visit with their favorite characters anymore. "I love spending time with every smart, quirky, biting, flawed one of them and I absolutely hate that their stories – and fantastic quips – will end," says Hilary Meredith, a "Mad Men" fan from Atlanta. "There's still so much more I wish I knew about them all!" She specifically cited the "bravura and swagger" of Sally, the daughter of main character Don Draper, as someone she will miss.
Jeffrey Garfinkel, an IT manager in Florida and avid From The Grapevine reader, told us it's the narrative arc he'll miss the most. "The show's writing and storytelling was similar to the best of literary fiction," he said. "I will miss seeing television that felt like reading a good novel. I can always re-watch it on DVD or Netflix, but I will miss that feeling of not knowing what happens next in the story, the turning of the page."
Some have even suggested a sequel of sorts to help get through those lonely nights. "I'm still holding out hope for a Sally boarding school spin-off," Kerensa Cadenas, a writer in Los Angeles, told From The Grapevine. "The show has created some of the most full formed women on television and they are who I'm going to miss the most."
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