We all love a good cry when it comes to television. Witness the success of this year’s breakout hit This Is Us, a time-leaping family drama where everyone shed tears and a whole lot of people die.
Viewers love it, obsessing over the mystery behind the fate of family patriarch Jack. We already know he died (We glimpsed the funeral), we just don’t know why. Maybe next season?
A good television heart-stomper is not easy to pull off. You can be depressing, just not too depressing so that viewers switch the channel over to Two Broke Girls (Now that’s depressing). The key is to establish likeable or at least understandable characters. They have to be real and viewers have to be able to identify with their daily struggles. Once you got that in place, you can lay on the sadness with a trowel. A crying kid, a lonely dog, and a crowded hospital room also seem to work well.
Here are a few TV shows that stomped hard on our hearts on a weekly basis. Yet we kept tuning in, a box of tissues by our side, episode after episode in hopes that things would get better. But if they got better, would we still have watched?
15 The 100
Is this the darkest, heart-stomping-est teen show ever? Could be. The sci-fi actioner about post-apocalyptic survivors features characters who aren’t good or bad. They’re just complicated. Survival means you have to make tough decisions – like when our supposed hero teens irradiated hundreds of men, women, and children on Mount Weather? The deaths were bad enough, but the loss of moral high ground among the main characters (and us viewers) was also hard to deal with. Who are we supposed to like on this space soap opera?
As well, romance on The 100 invariably is followed by heartbreaking death. Minutes after Lexa hooked up with Clarke, she was gone. And would hunky nice guy grounder Lincoln have been executed if he hadn’t developed feelings for Octavia? Love doesn’t save you on The 100. It only makes you weak. And dead.
This was a medical show, so you anticipated moments where your heart would get stomped on as the doctors dealt with life-and-death situations. And boy, did this show deliver those moments on a weekly basis for 15 seasons. Still, several upsetting scenes stand out in particular: Luka tied to a gurney, watching his pregnant wife suffer in front of him springs immediately to mind. Or that moment when Dr. Carter was stabbed by a patient and fell to the floor, only to then see med student Lucy lying nearby, bleeding to death.
Still, it was Dr. Greene’s death that really broke viewers’ hearts. After being diagnosed with brain cancer, Greene retreated to Hawaii, where he managed to reconcile with his estranged wife and kids before dying quietly. As deaths went, it was nice death but also a real weeper. Less heartbreaking was the crushing of Dr. Romano. After losing an arm to a helicopter blade, it was just morbidly funny to have the mean Romano crushed by yet another helicopter. Oh, irony…
13 Breaking Bad
Is it hard to feel sorry for a drug dealer? Not in this case. Walter White was broke, had lung cancer and another kid on the way. He really had little option but to get into the drug game. Still, that didn’t make it less upsetting as we slowly watched Walt change from a lovable family man into a heartless killer. Nothing ever got better on Breaking Bad. Things just got worse and more heartbreaking season after season. In trying to give his family security, Walter basically destroyed his relationship with them and everyone else he came into contact with.
Included among the inadvertent victims of Walter’s bad decisions were a young boy and a plane full of innocent people. The fact that White was successful in securing his family’s future (or at least that of Walt Jr.) didn’t cheer us up.
It was a comedy, sure, but a comedy about the Korean War. Dark and heartbreaking moments were inevitable. Even in the early seasons, when the show was saddled with a laugh track, death was never that far away. Easily its saddest early moment had to be the death of Colonel Blake at the end of Season Three. Actor McLean Stevenson was leaving the show, so the M*A*S*H producers decided to kill off his character. But they didn’t tell the cast. The reaction of the actors when they hear that Colonel Blake died in a plane crash was genuine. Even the high-rated finale – when the war ends and everyone mercifully goes home – was a bit of a heart-stomper. Father Mulcahy was deafened by a bomb blast, Major Winchester found joy in the music of several POWs only to see them die, and Hawkeye suffered a total breakdown after a tragic moment on a bus.
And as Hawkeye choppered away from the now-deserted M*A*S*H, you couldn’t help but get teary-eyed. Come on folks, the Korean War lasted only three years. This show aired for 11. It was time.
11 Six Feet Under
It was a show about a family-run funeral home that began every episode with a death. So, yeah, Six Feet Under was pretty dark. A dramatic meditation on mortality, the show used funerals as a backdrop to explore the Fisher family’s lives and struggles. And boy, did they struggle. Stoic David’s battle with his religion and his sexuality was always heartbreaking. Young Claire had to deal with becoming an adult and a series of jerk boyfriends, one of which (Gabe) got high while his young brother shot himself in another room. For oldest sibling Nate, his heartbreaking efforts to just be a good person occupied a lot of the show’s screentime. Which made his tragic death all the sadder.
Viewers also won’t soon forget Six Feet Under’s justifiably celebrated series finale in which the death of six main characters is chronicled in a matter-of-fact manner. That was about as depressing as TV gets.
10 Game Of Thrones
The whole purpose of this sword-and-dragons series is to stomp on our hearts. Good doesn’t always win. In fact, good people tend to die gruesomely in GoT. Take Ned Stark, probably the nicest, bravest character around in the early episodes. He got beheaded by King brat Joffrey in front of his family. And what about cute, kindly Princess Shireen? She was burned at the stake by her own father Stannis as some sort of witchy sacrifice. If that scene didn’t bust your heart into smithereens, nothing will. Same goes for the betrayal and death of Jon Snow, though at least he made a comeback. And did we mention that whole Red Wedding massacre? Maybe we shouldn’t. It was heartbreaking for about a dozen reasons.
Among GoT fans, last season’s revelation of the origin of big man Hodor’s name ranks high on the heart-stomping charts. The reveal came with Hodor's heroic death and sacrifice at the gnarled hands of the White Walkers. Hodor as an ice zombie? It could happen.
9 Little House On The Prairie
For a family show, Little House on The Prairie sure had its share of tragedy. Oh sure, each episode tended to end happily. Still, death never seemed that far removed from the action and saccharine plot turns. Babies died, sister Mary went blind, and father Charles’ lovable railroad buddy got blown up big time. And you’d have to be made of stone not to have been crushed when Albert’s youthful experiment with smoking led to a tragic fire at the blind school, killing Mary’s baby.
For its finale, the show literally blew up the town of Walnut Grove as a way to keep it from a ruthless land grabber. Cool to watch, but a little sad. It’s hard to fathom a reunion when your town is in rubble.
This classic high school series (and its many reboots) had no problem stomping on viewers’ hearts on a continuous basis. If there’s one complaint about the long-running Canadian series, it is its relentless need to punish its characters. Very rarely did a teen make a mistake on Degrassi without suffering horrible consequences. In the original series (1987-91), the school kids had to deal with pedophiles, drugs, alcohol, abusive boyfriends, pregnancy, abortion and AIDS. The character of Wheels, in particular, suffered a lot. He lost both his parents and – in the hard-hitting TV movie finale – killed people while drunk driving.
On Degrassi: The Next Generation (2001-2015), things remained dark with school shootings and, in a truly heartbreaking moment, the stabbing murder of beloved character J.T. It was a truly pointless death (Something to do with a school rivalry), which only made it worse.
Talk about a tear-inducing blood bath. In seven seasons, the sci-fi soaper killed off every main character – sometimes more than once. Some were just incidental (like the 253 plane passengers who died in the pilot), but several were gut-wrenching. Couple Jin and Sun found true love and then drowned. Redeemed rocker Charlie also drowned while giving Desmond a crucial message about his lost love. It goes on - Lucia? Libby? John Locke? Pick your favorite heartbreaking death.
What was most upsetting about this show was all the rescue fails. Just when you thought the castaways were going to get off that island, something happened. Or didn’t happen. And even when Jack and his entourage did get rescued, they immediately found life so awful they had to go back to the island. The finale, in which the entire cast is revealed to be dead or in some sort of purgatory, was annoying as it was sad. Everyone seemed happy except us viewers, who still didn’t want to say goodbye to these characters.
6 Party Of Five
The family series was heart-crushing right from the start, opening with the recent death of parents in a car crash. The five orphans were immediately forced to be adults, or at least pretend to be. And boy, were they bitter about it. It seemed like every other episode found oldest sibling Charlie resenting how his life would be different if only the other kids weren’t around.
In a way, each kid represented a different age group with a different set of youthful problems. Drugs, booze, sex, obsession, death, and angst reared their collective heads on a regular basis. Still, the Salingers managed to stick together and show up for dinner once a week at the family restaurant.
One particularly heartbreaking plotline found young Baily – who had already lost one girlfriend to drugs - developing an alcohol problem. It only ended with a car crash, a disfigured girlfriend, and a whole bunch of tears and apologies.
5 The Walking Dead
Life in the zombie apocalypse is pretty brutal on a daily basis. Yet somehow this hugely popular series manages to rise above the blood and create character moments that crush our hearts. Where do we begin? Rick meeting his new daughter for the first time and realizing his wife Lori is dead? The death of Dale? The beheading of Hershel? Zombie Sophia emerging from the barn? Or how about the recent death and zombification of Sasha? Heartbreaking stuff.
Heck, the show even killed off nice guy Glenn twice. The first time it was an optical illusion. The second came courtesy of evil Negan’s barb-wired baseball bat.
Worst of all, the deaths on TWD tend to create guilt and pain in the survivors that lingers long after the blood has washed off. This is a show filled with broken people barely hanging on.
The most soul-crushing TWD moment? How about when Daryl carried the dead body of Beth out of the hospital to the horror of her sister Maggie? Or the image of zombie-loving preteen Lizzie holding a knife over the dead body of her sister? Hard to pick a winner (or loser).
4 Rescue Me
How heartbreaking this show was depended on just how much you sympathized with the crude, rude, misogynistic New York firefighters. These were troubled guys, still recovering from the deaths of their comrades on 9/11. Heck, Tommy (Denis Leary) was literally haunted by the ghost of a cousin who died at the World Trade Centre. That event cast a pall over much of this show. The sadness and rage were there even when it wasn’t mentioned. And problems for the boys of Ladder 62 – addictions, kidnappings, fights, rape, hallucinations, sexual confusion – were never ending.
And just when things got funny – as it often did on Rescue Me – there was a tragic fire to deal with.
When it wasn’t stomping your heart, Rescue Me was disturbing you. A third season episode in which Tommy forced himself on his ex-wife proved wildly controversial. Leary, also a writer and producer on the show, refused to apologize. "Anybody that called it rape wasn't paying attention to the scene," Leary told The LA Times. Not so sure about that…
3 The Waltons
Another for-the-family drama that got pretty familiar with the feeling of stepping all over your heart Set during the Great Depression, The Waltons faced an endless array of money problems, sickness (Polio/Leukemia/Head injuries) and various visiting strangers with their own set of issues. Invariably, an episode in which a cow gives birth would break your heart when Pa Walton sells the beloved calf to a farmer who intends to butcher it. Thankfully the episode ends happily when Pa buys the calf back.
Yet, a happy ending couldn’t always erase the rough ride the viewer was put through. Remember that episode where a religious zealot beats his daughter, burns down the school for teaching evolution, and then kills himself? Sure, the daughter reunites with her long lost mom in the end but…wow. That was still tough to get through.
As gut-wrenching episodes go, the top pick has to be when John Boy won a journalism contest and an opportunity to cover a news event – the landing of the Hindenburg. Things, if you know your history, did not go too well.
2 This Is Us
If you need a good cry, this new series is more than up to the challenge. Everybody cries on this show. And with good reason. The drama – which flashes between three siblings (Randall, Kevin, and Kate) as kids and adults – was chock full of heartbreaking moments in its first season. Heck, before we even got to know anyone on the show, a newborn baby died, leading to Randall’s adoption. Later, Randall’s search for his birth father is successful but is followed immediately by his birth dad’s death.
Pretty tough viewing. So was the revelation that lovable dad Jack died for some as-yet-unexplained reason. One suspects we’re going to see images of Jack’s funeral (and aftermath) many, many times in the coming seasons. It’s just that kind of show.
Still, the biggest weeper moment saved for a scene in which Jack shows his love for Randall by doing push-ups with his son on his back. Happy tears all around.
1 The Leftovers
This dreary HBO drama was all about pain, tragedy and the aftermath. Everyone on this show was carrying around the somber after-effects of the “Sudden Departure”, a Rapture-type event in which 140 million people disappeared worldwide (Including Gary Busey for some reason). Some survivors in the fictional small town of Mapleton, New York never recovered from the loss. Others lashed out or sank into madness – low-key, somber, depressing madness. Religions faded; cults sprang up. Even the town dogs appear affected – running away and becoming feral and angry. You know you’re watching a depressing show when even the dogs have issues.
And things didn’t cheer up all that much in subsequent seasons – as the show moved to a small town in Texas. Things just got more depressing, heartbreaking and mad as mass murder, mayhem and missile strikes occurred as The Leftovers moved towards an apocalyptic season Three finale.