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Television's All-Time Greatest Tear-Jerkers

Watching John Hart on The Greatest American Hero a few weeks back brought some tears to my eyes. And it got me thinking about the times that TV has made me cry. So I've compiled a short list of these scenes - the ones that really got to me - and tried to analyse why they worked so well.

For you consideration...

Television's All-Time Greatest Tear-Jerkers.

Scene #1: The Death Of Sonny Steelgrave on "Wiseguy"

Music Used: Nights In White Satin, by The Moody Blues.

Background: Heart-breaking finish to the first and best story-arc on Wiseguy. Indeed, it was pretty much the first and best story-arc every done on television. Great not only because it was something that had never been done before, but great because it was profound and meaningful. Wiseguy not only told great stories but it made you think about the nature of friendship, loyalty, trust and honour in ways that no other show was able to do.

Sonny was an exceptional character and his bond with Vinnie drove the show during the first half of it's first season. The betrayal and ultimate suicide were gut-wrenching to watch.

Why It Worked: We knew and liked Sonny. And we knew that Vinnie loved him. The episodes leading up to this had detailed the growing friendship between them. They were like brothers (with Vinnie stepping in for Sonny's own brother). And Vinnie's betrayal was absolute and terrible. Enough to destroy one man, and nearly destroy the other. So, in short, the scene worked as a tear-jerker because a character we loved was dying and the circumstances of the death were heartbreaking to watch.


Scene #2: The Final Moments of "Veronica Mars"

Music used: "It Never Rains In Southern California" by Albert Hammond

Background: Not only was it one of the best TV shows of all time, it also gave us one of the best heroines. Flawed and imperfect, but savvy and clever beyond her years. The series ended way too soon and left the characters on Nepture in a sorry state of affairs. It was not the way we would have wanted the show to end, but it was oddly fitting. Given the amount of pain and grief that Veronica had suffered through while we watched her, it was somehow appropriate that we should bid farewell to her while things were going badly.

But it didn't make it any less sad. Her final walkaway in the rain, after voting in the election she knew her dad had lost, while that song played is one of the most memorable images ever shown on TV.

Why It Worked: Saying good-bye to a character we love.

Scene #3: The End of "The Wedding" on "Rescue 77"

Music used: "Valentine" by Nils Lofgren

Background: If you've not seen it you won't understand, but trust me when I say that one of the greatest love stories ever told was on this obscure little drama from Spring 1999. The team are called out to the scene of a horrific car crash. A bride and groom have had a car accident after leaving their wedding. She is unconscious. He is fully conscious but dying fast. He knows that she will be okay, but he knows that he will never speak to her again, never get to say all the things that he's held back, so he tells the rescue crew as they pull her from the wreckage. And then he dies. Listening to "their song".

Why It Works: Beyond the obvious "oh gosh this is sad" vibe, this works really well because it resonates with something very male and primitive. Men don't open up about their feelings very easily, or very often. Even this guy who has just married the love-of-his-life didn't tell her everything about how she impacted on him. Most men, if they are honest about it, can relate to that. Losing your true love before you open up and tell her how you feel about her is like living a nightmare.

Scene #4: The Death of Lal on "Star Trek: The Next Generation"

Background: My favourite episode of TNG was this life-affirming little piece called "The Offspring" when Data created a daughter and found that she exceeded him. She was better than him. And, he realised, that that was the goal of parenthood. To give life that that which will be better than you. It was a beautiful sentiment, beautifully executed. The ending where she dies and Data cannot express emotions over it are enough to bring tears from a stone.

Why It Works: Love stories tap into something primitive and important. So do stories of parenthood, but few writers choose it as a topic. Certainly where the story is to be about the death of a child. So, to do parenthood, have it feature a death and still make it all be uplifting is a remarkable achievement.

Scene #5: Val runs along the beach on the pilot of "Knots Landing"

Music used: "Knots Landing theme" by Jerrold Immel.

Why it works: It works because Val is sweet and naive. She's like a child in her desire to see the ocean. It also works (in hindsight) because I spent almost 14 seasons of TV with this character, watching her through her trials and tribulations and (while I loved Karen more) I loved her very much indeed.

When I watched the pilot last Summer and Val got out of her car - mid-way though the episode - and runs along the beach as the (wonderful) theme music swells to a crescendo I completely lost it. Suddenly the theme meant something to me. I've loved that piece of music for the last thirty years, but now I understand what it's about.

Scene #6: The final montage of "The Darkness" on Highlander.

Music Used: "Dust In The Wind" by Kansas

Background: Highlander was "the thinking man's action show" and no episode better shows this than the one were Tessa was killed and Richie and Duncan went their separate ways. For the first time (four episodes into the second season) viewers had a chance to understand what the show was really about: the people we leave behind as we travel though life. Some die and some take different roads.

Why It Worked: It worked because of the shock of what has happened. Even on repeated viewing this episode still shocks you with it's savage and random murders. It worked because the Duncan/Tessa relationship was one of the best on TV. You believed that they loved one another, you believed that he truly loved her, believed that he would remember her for centuries after her death. The fact that we got to see their first meeting and see how much they had grown together only served to show how deep their love was.

"I've seen so many things, I've fought so many battles. People become part of your life and then they....they just die. It all stays with you, Rich, you live with it. Their hopes, their dreams, their pain, their love. Tessa makes me feel so young. Every time I see her, it's like the first time."

It worked because Tessa was lovely and sweet and this was a horrible way to die. Yet it fitted the tone of the show and wasn't a betrayal of the feelings fans had invested in the character up to that. It merely justified them.

Scene #7: Thomas Magnum walks away (dies) at the end of "Limbo" on "Magnum, pi" (You can see it here. Thanks, metalligirl!)

Music used: "Looking For Space" by John Denver

Background: While "Magnum, pi" does not rate very highly on my list of great TV series, I freely admit that I watched every episode during the first run and if I ever go back and re-watch it it will be for episodes like this, the seventh season finale, when Thomas is shot and hovers near death, his spirit visiting each of his friends in turn (helping to save his true love's life in the process) before he finally decides to leave it all behind, to turn and walk into the light.

Why It Worked: The music. The lyrics gave the scene more meaning that it would otherwise have had and lifted it beyond the mere sadness of seeing a character we liked die. The lyrics gave the whole episode (maybe even the series?) a subtext about Thomas looking for something.

Summary: So what makes a great tear-jerker?

Does it have to be about romance? Only two of the scenes I liked were about lovers. One was about parenthood, one was about friendship and two were about death. The Veronica Mars scene was about... none of the above. When I first got the idea for this list, I assumed I'd end up with a list of scenes of lovers cos that's what I imagined would get me sad. Turns out, not so much...

Is the music important? All but one of the scenes I've listed has very memorable and well chose music. The Trek scene was just as perfect, but the music was just the usual score. In all the others, the music was so important that I added the song to my music collection.

Do the scenes have to be sad? Most of the scenes above are sad, but the Knots Landing scene is definitely not sad. In fact it's very uplifting. It's debatable how sad the Magnum, pi and Veronica Mars scenes actually are. The scene with Thomas Magnum is quite positive and uplifting, and the sadness one feels while watching Veronica Mars has very little to do with what is happening on-screen, and more to do with the fact that we know we will not see her ever again. Had the show returned for more episodes, then this scene would have a tear-jerk factor of zero.

Do we have to know the characters well? In most cases, I would say yes. The Knots Landing scene only really works (as a tear-jerker) when you see the pilot after having seen lots of the series that follows it. So that would make you think that a long-time emotional attachment to the character helps. Then there's Rescue 77. I had never seen that groom before. He is a character from one episode of a short-lived TV show, yet I've never forgotten him.

So, those are the ones that got me teared up. What scenes got to you? And what do you think makes a good tear-jerker?


Ally said...

the ending for veronica mars was absolutely perfect. it was sad, and a little disturbing but i think what made it work was the overall tone of love. veronica and kieth's love for each other as well as logans love for veronica. i really hope they make a movie picking up right where they left off. and the fact that they brought Jake Kane back in was amazing. It was a super ending to a season that had CW written all over it. Rob Thomas is genius.

RikerDonegal said...

I agree.

I hope this movie goes ahead. Althought the ending was perfect for Veronica in many ways... I still want more!!

Anonymous said...

Nice blog! [Found it looking for others' opinions and insights into Wiseguy -- such a great show.]

The final scene from the final episode of M*A*S*H was a real tear-jerker for me -- when Hawkeye takes off in the helicopter (miffed at B.J.'s inability to say goodbye) and as we zoom out we see B.J. has written "GOODBYE" with rocks ... and then it hits you that this incredible series touchingly is saying goodbye to us.

Ignoring Friday Night Lights renders the Emmy's meaningless.

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