By Eric Deggans
If there is one emotion that hangs over our world these days — other than fear and anger, perhaps — it is grief.
There’s the grief that comes from watching the death of George Floyd captured on a bystander’s video, pleading for his mother and his breath, while a police officer kneels with a knee on his neck.
There’s grief over what that moment said about police and the policing of black people, along with grief over the protests and violence in some American cities as people demand answers.
And there’s the grief of Coronavirus, as we mourn lives cut short, and shoulder the loss of jobs, business opportunities, weddings, vacations, graduations, senior proms …
In this difficult time, television shows have emerged as a surprising resource, with important examples of how people process grief and handle journeys of loss. An increasing number of fictional dramas and comedy series center on characters struggling with grief in raw and emotional ways, which some experts say can actually help all of us learn how to process those feelings better.
“I do think there’s a lot of power in the media starting to embrace grief as a conversation,” says Joanne Weingarten, the Senior Clinical Coordinator of adult programs at the Our House Grief Support Center in Los Angeles. “The thing I find really powerful about these shows, is that they don’t solve grief in one episode. When you live in a culture that says after three days when someone you love dies, you should be back in the workforce, that can be really confusing.”
Some have used the term “traumedies” to describe comedies about pain and loss. But there’s a wide range of shows mining the subject, featuring grief and grieving characters centrally.
In a way, it’s counterintuitive to typical TV development, which focuses on likable characters viewers want inside their homes — grieving characters can be unlikable and difficult to watch.
Holly Daniels, a former actress (House and Castle), now has a doctorate in psychology and serves as Managing Director of Clinical Affairs for the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists in Los Angeles. She says TV shows that treat grief as a momentary state often miss the mark, feeding into a culture that tells viewers major life problems can have simple solutions rooted in consumerism, like purchasing the right car or the right house.
“Being in the rat race of our consumer culture, [the lockdowns sparked by the pandemic] forced us to kind of take a step back and figure out what is meaningful to us,” Daniels says. “Consumer culture disengages us. … We almost needed something this global to make us step back from that and look at our lives. … That’s what I see in these shows.”
It may sound odd to highlight fictional stories about grief at a time when so much of the real thing is around. But experts say there is also a catharsis in watching someone struggle with feelings you are having — it’s also one of the most powerful dynamics that binds us to television — and there is a lot about grief and grieving that today’s TV shows get right.
Here’s my list of the best TV shows that depict grief these days, along with a little analysis from the experts.
I Know This Much Is True (HBO)
In this miniseries, based on a Wally Lamb novel, Mark Ruffalo gives anguished, emotional performances as two people; twin brothers, Dominick and Thomas. Though the first episode features Thomas committing a horrific act while struggling with mental illness, it is Dominick we see constantly suffering from grief – pushing away friends and family members after the loss of his mother, his baby, his marriage and more.
At times, Dominick seems the brother most in need of help, as his twin’s commitment to an institution sends him into a spiral of anger, self-loathing, guilt and anxiety that lasts years. In the miniseries, Dominick’s ex-wife, girlfriend, best friend and stepfather all step back in the wake of his blistering anger; for viewers, it makes watching the middle episodes of the miniseries a challenge as we plunge deeper into his dark world.
Experts say: “Grief is really messy; it can be a lot of tangled emotions, positive and negative, over many months or many years,” says Dr. Shoshana Ungerleider, a physician who also was an executive producer of End Game, a Netflix documentary short about end of life issues. “Anxiety is the missing stage of grief that nobody talks about, but so many people are feeling right now. Giving ourselves permission to feel that can be really therapeutic.”
After Life (Netflix)
Ricky Gervais plays a more depressed and suicidal version of himself as Tony Johnson, features editor for a small community newspaper, who is drowning in grief after his beloved wife dies of breast cancer. At first, he plans to kill himself, then copes by doing whatever he wants — often lobbing insults at those around him, as only Gervais can — as a way of punishing the world. But when others try to help him, his attitude changes.
Experts say: “This show does a really good job of not sugarcoating his grief,” says Weingarten of the Our House Center. “It shows that he is angry, sad, and at moments wants to end his life. But, slowly, he tries to put one foot in front of the other, [though] there are setbacks.”
Dead to Me (Netflix)
In one of the oddest buddy comedies on TV, Christina Applegate plays Jen Harding, a realtor struggling to handle grief after her husband is killed by a hit-and-run driver. Her life improves when she meets Judy Hale, played by Linda Cardellini, another widow at a grief support group who becomes a fast and close friend. But (spoiler alert!) when Jen learns that Judy isn’t exactly who she says she is, their relationship changes. In the second season, which debuted recently, Jen is still struggling to control her anger as their roles switch and she is forced to hide a terrible secret from Judy.
Experts say: “You want to make sure you’re not putting pressure on yourself in the early stages of grief to see silver linings or find meaning or do work to make yourself a better person,” says Daniels, noting the pressure on Applegate’s character to improve during support group meetings. “If you’re in the angry phase or you’re in the ‘Everybody leave me alone, I need some space’ phase, that’s OK, too. Just by showing us how these characters are feeling and letting us see that, without someone jumping in to fix it right away, is a huge help to a lot of people. … It really can be a comfort.”
This Is Us (NBC)
NBC’s super-successful family drama centers on three grown siblings — two biological and one adopted — born on the same day. But the show depicts them at different times in their lives — as tweens, teens and adults — slowly revealing that much of the series’ storylines are centered on how the siblings have been affected across the breadth of their lives by the death of their father.
Experts say: “That’s a show people at the [Our House Grief] Center talk about a lot … [because] we grieve not just for the current moment, we grieve for the future we planned with the person who died,” says Weingarten. “Every time there’s an event that you expected that person to [attend], there will be some grief involved.”
Sorry For Your Loss (Facebook Watch)
This under-the-radar series is probably the best original show Facebook has produced yet for its Watch platform. Avengers franchise star Elizabeth Olsen plays Leigh Shaw, a young widow who left her job writing an advice column to move in with her mother and sister after her husband dies. As a widow, Leigh feels the most entitled to show her grief, but the series reveals that everyone in her family is struggling with the loss of her husband in different ways, including her husband’s brother.
Experts say: “When someone in our life dies … everyone else [in our life] is grieving the same person, but they have a different relationship with that person,” says Weingarten. “Even though we’re grieving the same individual, what we’re missing about that person might be radically different. So engaging in conversations with others and talking about what you miss about that person can be really powerful, because we can learn about the people we loved after they are gone.”
There are many more great TV shows centered on this subject, from HBO’s Six Feet Under and ABC’s A Million Little Things to Amazon’s Undone and Netflix’s Never Have I Ever. Even classic good guys like Harry Potter, Batman and Superman were forged into heroes by the crucible of grief, rebounding from the deaths of their parents to become forces for justice.
Daniels says such fictional work can provide lasting lessons, as trauma from the pandemic and world events remains with us all, even after the immediate crisis ends.
“We’re always going to carry this time with us,” she says. “But maybe struggling together can bring us closer to each other. Maybe we’ll find more connection. And TV shows which [depict] that arc of healing and reconnection … that’s a really important storyline for people to see.”
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