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Good Question: Why Do We Get So Attached To Television Characters?

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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — When Aarica Johnson of Lino Lakes tuned into CBS’ “The Good Wife” last night, she saw one of the last things she’d expected – the death of a major character in the show.

“I actually had to back it up and rewind because I was like, oh no, that did not happen,” she said.

Anita and Steve Fierro of Stillwater, long-time fans of the show, felt the same way.

“Probably the biggest shocker on a show that we’ve seen,” they said. “Bigger than J.R.”

As soon as the show aired, Twitter lit up with comments from people who wrote they felt “angry,” “emotionally drained,” and “sucker punched.”

None of these reactions surprised Kevin Sauter, a communications professor at the University of St. Thomas. He’s teaching a course on television criticism this semester.

“When they knock off a character like that, it’s like losing a friend,” Sauter said.

He says viewers’ feelings toward television characters can be a considered a parasocial relationship. They don’t know these people in person, but have invested significant time in their show to feel a connection. As the Fierros put it: “They kind of become family in a way, after season after season of watching something.”

“Whether it’s the newscaster or the character on a long-running program, we consider them our friends, our television friends so what happens to them really does impact us,” Sauter said.

Sauter also attributes part of the shock to the unexpectedness. Though killing off characters in shows like “Person of Interest” or “Game of Thrones” has become more popular, it can still surprise people when they don’t know it’s happening. Actor Josh Charles and the rest of “The Good Wife” crew kept secret for a year that he wanted to leave the show.

“I think people would be shocked, but not surprised,” Sauter said.

And, finally, some people use these television shows as a way to escape or experience something they might not otherwise. For example, most people will never argue in front of a courtroom or work as a doctor in a hospital emergency room.

“These are places where we don’t get to go to and insert ourselves into,” Sauter said. “That is an important psychological connection.”

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