Have you either felt a sense of loss after binging the final episodes of a television series?
Perhaps you’ve experienced this sadness on reaching the last page of a book that you’d been reading for months? Or maybe you held off watching the final instalment of a movie franchise for as long as possible because you anticipated the emptiness that would come once your time with the characters was over?
If you have dreaded or felt downhearted at a fictitious ending, you’re not alone.
Across all media, audiences develop relationships with their favourite characters. Like their real-world counterparts, these fictional relationships involve feelings of affection, perceptions of similarity and even attempts to imagine what it is like to be this other “person”.
Some researchers consider these interactions similar to other types of relationships we have in our lives. We might see these characters as casual acquaintances or dear friends, feel a mild or more acute sense of upset when they face adversity, and compare or contrast our own feelings about particular social or political issues with theirs.
Importantly, parasocial relationships, which are connections we form with media characters or personalities, are valued, and we often take them seriously.
Let’s consider the television series Friends, whose finale in 2004 was watched by over 52 million US viewers.
Following the final episode, researchers Keren Eyal and Jonathan Cohen asked American undergraduate students how they felt about the conclusion of the series. In this study, the more committed a fan was to the series and the stronger the bond they had formed with their favourite character, the more they felt they had experienced a “breakup” at the end of the series.
When good Neighbours become lost friends
In 2022, the Australian television serial Neighbours aired its final episode. Fans, particularly those in the UK where the series is very popular, were upset. In fact, they seemed to be experiencing a loss akin to the grief we feel when a real-life relationship crumbles or our time with someone important in our lives comes to an end.
I decided to examine the grief and loss reactions of Neighbours fans and what factors were associated with them feeling this loss more acutely.
A total of 1,289 fans, mostly from the UK and Australia, completed an online survey shortly after the airing of the final episode. They reported their reasons for watching the series, feelings towards a favourite character, and how connected they felt with fellow fans. They also described the level of their grief and loss, similar to the survey Friends fans had completed almost 20 years earlier.
Importantly, at the time of completing the survey, fans had no indication that the series would be revived in late 2023. For them, the show and their parasocial bonds were finished.
You’re breaking up with me?
So, what happens when parasocial relationships end?
We can find plenty of small-screen examples of how audiences react. When Molly Jones passed away from cancer on the Australian series A Country Practice in 1985, the nation almost entered a state of collective mourning. Similarly, exits like Maggie Doyle in Blue Heelers and Dr Patrick Reid in Offspring had Australian viewers reaching for their tissue boxes.
Similar effects have been observed with international shows. The deaths of many key characters, including Robb Stark, at the wedding of in Game of Thrones shocked viewers. So, too, did the passing of Jack Pearson of This Is Us and then Mr. Big in And Just Like That. In these cases, their demises were associated with a crockpot and a high-end exercise bike, respectively, making them surreal but nonetheless tragic.
Another way we experience these parasocial breakups is when a series ends. Surprisingly, with the exception of the Friends study, there has been limited research conducted into our loss reactions.
Grief, gratitude and viewer motives
In my research, Neighbours fans reported experiencing strong feelings of grief, including sadness, anger and disbelief. They also reported missing their favourite character a great deal. Not surprisingly, given the series had only just concluded, they did not report feeling a sense of closure to their grief. However, they were very grateful for the role Neighbours had played in their lives and what it had given them.
Fans who experienced greater grief and loss reactions had formed strong relationships with their favourite character, involving empathy and understanding. That is, they reported often feeling sad when their favourite character felt sad or concerned for them, with these reactions often coming about when they imagined how things looked from their perspective.
Greater grief reactions were found in those fans who watched the show for exciting storylines, because it allowed them to experience different lifestyles and situations, and to feel a part of the fan community. Viewers who watched merely to pass the time or just because it “was on” did not experience this degree of loss.
When comparing fandoms, Neighbours fans reported greater loss in my study than the fans of Friends in the US study following their parasocial breakup.
It is important to note that those in the Neighbours sample were very committed fans, perhaps explaining this difference. However, this might also reflect the fact that viewers had not only bonded with, but had developed decades-long relationships with the Neighbours characters.
Finding the perfect blend
Viewers who invest in a series do care about the fortunes of their favourite characters. The sadness we feel when a character or series leaves the parasocial world makes sense from a relationships perspective. Indeed, other studies have found that we react to the deaths of celebrities in some ways as if we knew them.
It should be remembered that parasocial relationships differ from our real-world ones in a key aspect. Parasocial relationships do not allow us to experience the satisfaction that reciprocation in feelings, connection or bonds from a relationship partner affords us.
Indeed, if a person is particularly grieved by a parasocial breakup, it would be a good idea to delve into those feelings. Does the series meet needs for connection to others, companionship, stability or something that is perceived to be lacking in one’s life? Exploring how those needs might be satisfied through real-life relationships would be particularly useful.
Authors: Adam Gerace, Senior Lecturer and Head of Course - Positive Psychology, CQUniversity Australia