Stage 3: The Breakup
Of course, all good things do come to an end eventually. If you’re still scarred by the end of a show you loved, then you know that a botched finale can leave you with a "Lost"-sized hole in your heart. But is it really reasonable to compare the end of a TV show to an in-the-flesh, heart-wrenching breakup? Yep, in fact, it is.
A 2004 study, led by Cohen, concluded that we expect losing an on-screen “friend” will be as painful as losing a real one. And both breakups—real and imagined—had surprisingly parallel effects. “When the characters went off the air, the strength of the relationship predicted how sad people were, just as you would expect with other types of friends,” says Cohen. The closer people felt to the characters and the more often they had watched them, the more upset they were by the loss.
As with any breakup, we need closure to move on, and as with any breakup, we don’t always get it. “When we don’t get that closure, it’s frustrating,” says Chris. “You’ve seen all these characters grow, but you’re ultimately not going to know where or how their stories end.”
In one infamous example, HBO’s "Carnivale" was abruptly cancelled after the second season, leaving fans in the dark about some major plot threads—including whether leading characters lived or died. Frustrated fans organized petitions and mailing drives to get the show renewed, sending more than 50,000 emails to the network in one weekend. Their effort forced one of the creators to reveal which characters would have survived, illustrating how deeply we come to care about these characters’ fictional futures.
Bonding over a cancelled show can even spark a real-life friendship—one where the other person actually knows you exist. “I’ve had friendships start because we were drunk at a bar and someone said ‘I love The Wire,’” says Laura. Think of that next time you’ve just lost a whole day to reruns.
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