Why We Love Being Emotionally Destroyed By This Is Us
I recently saw the Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga remake of A Star Is Born. As I was watching, I noticed something major was happening in the theater: Everyone was getting emotional. By the final scene, people were choking back sobs. When the lights came up, the theater was filled with wet, mascara-streaked cheeks.
My cheeks, however, remained dry, and my mascara stayed firmly on my lashes.
Why am I not crying?? I thought to myself. Do I not like this movie? Do I prefer Bradley Cooper’s collaborations with Jennifer Lawrence? Am I a heartless monster who doesn’t believe in true love or Bradley Cooper’s directorial ambitions? Am I Ariana Grande, do I HAVE no tears left to cry?
As my brain was short-circuiting from the overwhelming desire to cry like everyone else, I realized that I wasn't asking myself the most important question of all: Why did I want to be crying?
Finding an answer to that took on a sense of urgency when I remembered that This Is Us , NBC's biggest, baddest emotional bully, will air on Sept. 25. The show is a family drama with an average of three heart-to-hearts per episode, and at least one big plot twist involving the death of the beloved patriarch. It's almost impossible to escape a 60-minute episode without weeping — in fact, sometimes it feels like it's designed to make your body produce the most amount of tears it possibly can.
I love it.
To figure out why I take such satisfaction in regular blubbering, I contacted the Director of the Media Psychology Research Institute, Dr. Pamela B. Rutledge.
“Good stories transport us into another world by engaging us at multiple levels of the brain — subconsciously through emotion and consciously through projection and imagination,” Rutledge explained. “Where comedy often demands a cognitive appraisal to detect jokes (sarcasm, word use), dramas focus more on our subconscious (and more powerful) emotional response for engagement.”
In other words, it’s nice to have an hour (or two) to just turn your brain off and get in touch with your emotions. And if that happens to unleash the kind of adult baby sobs that you need to experience cathartic emotional release from the stressors of your own life, all the better.
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"Compared to our daily lives, the story lines in dramas ... are compressed into much shorter time frames, heightening the emotional intensity,” Rutledge explains. “We can physically and emotionally experience a full range of powerful feelings, such as frustration, anger, sadness, loss, powerlessness, strength, desire and love all the while having the existential knowledge that they will end. This gives us a vacation from our lives, as well as a life simulation, as watching becomes a learning experience about managing our feelings.
Even if I don't have major Pearson family drama IRL, the reason I don't just cry, but want to cry during This Is Us is because it helps me process my emotions and finesse my ability to deal. Essentially, television as emotional escapism with a side helping of coping skills. The Pearsons go through emotionally compressed versions of very human experiences, providing what Dr. Rutledge describes as a "point of comparison" to our own troubles.
But what about the sad shows that don't have a point of comparison? This Is Us is a show about a family unlike my own, but still feels familiar enough to relate — and ultimately, react — to. However, I also enjoy a good cry during sad shows with plot lines that have absolutely no resemblance to my own life (thinks Game of Thrones or The Handmaid's Tale). Dr. Rutledge explained there's a reason for that, too.
“Where This is Us, Parenthood and Grey’s Anatomy provide a chance to both escape, connect and be comforted by familiar characters and others’ challenges, The Handmaid’s Tale reflects a social mood, allowing the expression of social frustration and helplessness many feel," Dr. Rutledge explains.
So, basically, Game of Thrones might tap into my emotions about war and conflict and help me let some of those feelings go. During The Handmaid's Tale, I enjoy crying along with Offred — not about the commanders in Gilead, but the current administration in America.
Seems about right.
Out of all these shows though, This Is Us is probably the biggest culprit when it comes to inducing whimpers, sniffles, and sobs. If you're like me, and you find yourself eager to break down alongside the Pearson family, know that you're not alone. Season two of This Is Us gave us a glimpse at a new (and likely heartbreaking) timeline with old man Randall and his adult daughter Tess. Season three will reportedly explore the late Jack Pearson’s years serving in the Vietnam War, among other things. It's going to be rough, you're going to shed tears by the gallon (and sell them for $12,000?), and most importantly, you're going to love it.