“This Is Us” is known for making fans cry, as the Pearsons tackle their weekly traumas and the producers crank the Cat Stevens. It’s prime time’s Wonderful Wizard of Waaahs, the bawl game whose home runs call for tons of tissues.
But to be honest, the NBC drama hasn’t made me cry once, or even well up. “This Is Us” leaves me completely untriggered. The characters just don’t move me, even when we’re shown one of them — Kate — bemoaning her fate once again, this time with two younger versions of herself in the same room. The harder the writers work to jerk the tears, to prompt the feels, the more I refrain. I guess I have to admit that I’ve been hate-watching “This Is Us” for a while now, except for anything and everything Randall.
Other shows, however, have left me wrung out over the years, and I have a list of TV moments that have wrenched my heart. There have been countless occasions when unscripted TV has left me terribly sad — just Google the episode of “The View” when Joe Biden consoled Meghan McCain over her father’s illness. You will be shaken and you will be stirred. But it’s more impressive when a scripted series manages to be truly affecting, when the writing and the acting are finely gauged to successfully make the mascara run.
It’s as easy to bungle emotional peaks as it is to botch humor, so here’s to some honestly elicited tears. Here are 10 of my favorite gut punches.
On “M*A*S*H,” the gang learns Colonel Blake’s plane has been shot down.
The classic episode is named after an awful pun — “Abyssinia, Henry” — but there is nothing awful about this half-hour, made at a time when TV characters rarely died. (The death of Gary on “thirtysomething” also shocked an audience unused to seeing a regular pass on.) Like many sad moments on TV, the death of Henry — announced to the OR by the guy who’d been his right-hand man, Radar — is preceded by upbeat material. Henry is discharged! Warm goodbyes are exchanged! And then boom: The bad news drops like a bomb. What makes it all sadder is the restraint by the doctors, who must continue tending to the wounded despite their grief.
That time on “Mad Men” when Don Draper took his kids to see the now-dilapidated brothel where he grew up.
Of the many powerful scenes in “Mad Men” — even the one when a tearful Don first learns his dear friend Anna has died — the end of season six left me in a puddle. A broken Don, just given a mandatory leave of absence from work, stands in front of a rundown Pennsylvania house and says, “This is where I grew up.” Across a gulf of discord, Don and daughter Sally look at each other with profound understanding. She sees her father as a human being and tacitly grasps his secrets. Meanwhile, the strains of Judy Collins singing “Both Sides Now” signify the pulling together of Don’s split identity. It was as tender and delicate a moment as you’ll find on TV drama.
The soldiers on “Band of Brothers” liberate a death camp.
On patrol, some of the men stumble across what looks like a prison. Asked why all these people have been held captive, a prisoner replies, “Juden, Juden, Juden,” and we see the truth begin to dawn on the ensemble. A happy moment, as they prepare to liberate? Not at all, as the soldiers, led by Damian Lewis’s commanding officer, numbly walk by the horrific conditions and the bone-thin, disoriented prisoners staring back at them. While Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 swells, we see the camp through the eyes of war-torn men who’ve encountered all kinds of death and destruction, but not this kind of cruelty. We all know now what went down in World War II under Hitler, but to these men it was a dawning revelation about the depths of human depravity. It’s a devastating sequence.
“Six Feet Under” ends with a six-minute flash-forward of everyone’s death.
The series finale of the funeral-home family drama wasn’t just intelligent, as the show about death led us through the passing of all the major characters. The episode “Everyone’s Waiting” was deeply affecting and ultimately operatic, as daughter Claire drove east to New York, speeding forward into decades of tomorrows. The musical accompaniment is always important at emotional peaks, and the music during the “Six Feet Under” finish — Sia’s “Breathe Me” — was soul-stirring perfection. The Fisher family all faded into the past as we got a glimpse of each of their gravestones. It left me thoroughly deflated and thoroughly satisfied.
Reality breaks through Martha’s tragic denial on “The Americans.”
Everything about FBI secretary Martha broke my heart a bit. Her gullibility, her trusting nature, her self-protective delusions, they left her painfully vulnerable to exploitation. In the season four episode “Travel Agents,” she goes on the lam from the Russian safe house where she is being hidden, calls her parents, and stands on a bridge pondering suicide. It’s a sorrow-filled hour, as a person so completely used, abused, and spit out fights to be brave. My tear ducts itched throughout. Honorable mention from “The Americans”: That second in the series finale when Philip and Elizabeth see that daughter, Paige, has gotten off the train to Canada, and they pass into a future without her.
When we learn how Hodor got his name on “Game of Thrones.”
The Red Wedding was outrageous and shocking, but it didn’t make me all misty. The origin story of gentle giant Hodor, though, told in a sixth-season episode called “The Door,” has been one of the epic’s most powerful turns, despite its relative smallness. Not only did the episode kill off Hodor, as he pushes against a cave door to save Bran, ever the loyal and sweet man trying to “hold the door,” but it revealed how he became simple-minded. Apparently Bran’s warging got a little messy, and past Hodor got screwed up along the way while hearing the phrase “hold the door” — thus only being able to utter the word “hodor.” When bad things happen to good people, it’s always particularly potent.
Adriana La Cerva is taken for a ride on “The Sopranos.”
In the episode “Long Term Parking,” we could see Adriana fighting against the realization that Silvio wasn’t really driving her to the hospital to visit Christopher. He was taking her into the woods to kill her for cooperating with the FBI. Her growing awareness as the car passes by the bare trees of New Jersey was hard to watch. But the way he pulled her out of the car as she cried “please” and “no” was excruciating. She’d been a relatively innocent character, pushed into a game whose rules were far above her intelligence level; now she was paying for it, with the cursing Silvio ruthlessly getting his job done. The most jarring part of the scene may be the way the camera swings up to face the sky as two shots ring out amid birds’ cries. Sometimes, what you don’t show has extra power.
Skyler, despondent, walks into the swimming pool and sinks to the bottom on “Breaking Bad.”
This series was filled with harrowing moments, including the deaths of Hank and, later, Walt. But the sequence in “Fifty-One” in which Skyler floats in despair, her dress like a parachute enveloping her, was upsetting. She’s another innocent victim drawn into a world of evil, realizing that she is married to a dangerous man whose ego is out of control. The entire series was filled with swimming pool imagery, from Walt finding jet-collision material in a pool to the death of young Gus’s partner, whose blood dripped into a pool. But this was particularly haunting. Some were vocal about disliking Anna Gunn’s turn on this show; I thought she was the berries, not least of all as her character fell apart.
Godric decides to meet his final death on “True Blood.”
Godric was Eric’s maker, an ancient vampire who was all about amorality and hunting humans until, redeemed, he took a turn toward compassion. In season two, before the series became absurd, he decided that 2,000 years of life were plenty, and he went to “meet the sun.” It was a lovely scene, as the grief-stricken Eric, crying tears of blood, urged him to live while he calmly refused. Godric stands in the sun, while Sookie stays by him. The moment becomes philosophical, as they talk about God and fear; but it maintains its sad sway as he disintegrates as day breaks.
Matt Saracen’s father dies on “Friday Night Lights.”
As many times as I didn’t cry watching “This Is Us,” I did cry watching this fantastic series. But I had to pick only one instance, and it was the Matt plot in the episode “The Son.” Matt was generally emotionally muted, but that didn’t work for him when his father was killed in combat in Iraq. His feelings for his father were complicated, and they emerge in fits and starts over the hour, particularly when he gets drunk. After the funeral, he picks up a shovel and begins to bury the man who was never there for him.