Our favorite TV characters might be a work of fiction, but our feelings for them are real. So when a character dies, or a beloved couple breaks up, viewers can also experience emotions of grief and sadness. Researchers have found that because humans are social animals, these feelings are to be expected and, in most instances, can be beneficial.
The term “parasocial relationship”(or PSR) describes the emotions viewers develop as they watch TV characters week after week. Viewers become acquainted with a character, learn their backstory and relate to their struggles. Over time, the character feels real, like a friend.
TV Friends Mean Parasocial Relationships
In the mid-1950s, social scientists recognized an interesting phenomenon. Many Americans had been going to the movie theater for decades, but television brought on-screen characters into people’s lives on a recurring basis, creating PSR.
Today, early into the NBC series, This is Us, fans knew beloved characters Jack and Rebecca Pearson wouldn’t last as a couple. Flash-forwards showed Rebecca with Jack’s best friend, but viewers had to wait two years to learn the backstory.
When the long-awaited storyline finally came, fans witnessed a Crock-Pot spark a kitchen fire. Jack inhaled smoke and later had a heart attack. In turn, viewers were heartbroken and had a wave of anger so profound that Crock-Pot’s parent company saw their stock immediately tank by 24 percent. The hate and anger were so immense the actor who played Jack Pearson — Milo Ventimiglia — had to give a public statement saying he forgave Crock-Pot for what happened.
Researchers have found that viewers approach characters like Jack similarly to how they start real-life relationships. The patterns for how we judge the people we meet off-screen and react to them are extended to the introduction of a new TV character.
Read More: Why Are Emotions Contagious?
So when bad things happen to good characters, social scientists have found viewers’ emotions can be very real.
Parasocial Relationships and Sad Splits
When Jack died, viewers learned the bad news along with his widow. Many then took to the Internet to express their emotions. A 2020 study in Journal of Communication Inquiry conducted an analysis of viewers’ online response and found that “fans grieved as a result of an intense PSR.”
Other studies have found that although losing a TV character is not as traumatic as losing someone in real life, a person can still feel bereaved. When a TV character dies or leaves the show, viewers can feel as though they aren’t done with the relationship. They then have to cope with not seeing the character regularly as they did before.
Weekly episodes give people the ongoing sense they are interacting with a character. As the show progresses, these characters let us in on their biggest secrets and most intimate moments. This makes us feel as though we’ve developed a bond with them.
Friends with Benefits
We want to see good things happen to our TV friends. We don’t want to see them get dumped, fired or emotionally wounded. A viewer might wonder — if grieving Jack is worrisome, is it even worth it to get attached?
Read More: What Keeps Us in Bad Relationships?
Researchers have found that PSRs can be healthy and offer social benefits. A 2021 article in Human Arenas considered the value of PSRs when COVID-19 lockdowns restricted social interaction. In the absence of real-life relationships, many people supplemented their need for socialization by binge-watching shows until Netflix asked, “are you still watching?”
The study analyzed the literature on PSR in the digital era and concluded these interactions can fill social needs and decrease loneliness. Although PSRs shouldn’t replace real-life relationships, they can supplement the need for socialization. The author also found PSRs can benefit people who are chronically lonely, including seniors or people who struggle to make connections.
A viewer doesn’t need to be lonely to benefit from a PSR. Scholars have also found it is a normal part of the viewing experience, allowing a person to engage in a one-sided interaction with a character. One positive aspect is how the viewer can make stress-free decisions on whether to maintain the relationship. If a plot twist means a character is suddenly despicable, viewers can disconnect without having to justify themselves or face an awkward interaction. They can simply transfer their allegiance to another character, change the channel or turn the TV off.