Fictional friendships may even fill the void on those Saturday nights when all your plans fall through. One hypothesis—called the “social surrogacy hypothesis”—suggests that television relationships can take the place of real ones. A 2009 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that TV shows you love can actually increase feelings of belonging, sometimes even boosting mood and protecting against blows to self-esteem.
But not all experts agree. “For the most part, parasocial relationships do not serve as surrogates, but rather as an extension of one’s ‘real’ social networks,” says Cohen. “People who tend to lack the social skills to create and maintain friendships seem to lack the skills that it takes to create parasocial relationships.” He points out that people with large social networks also tend to have a lot of parasocial relationships, while people with fewer friends don’t.
Cohen adds that your TV friends can fill a really important role: They can make you more accepting. Studies show that developing parasocial relationships with minority characters improves attitudes toward that minority, just as spending time with a diverse social group would.
Stage 3: The Breakup
Of course, all good things do come to an end eventually. If you’re still scarred by the end of a show you loved, then you know that a botched finale can leave you with a Lost-sized hole in your heart. But is it really reasonable to compare the end of a TV show to an in-the-flesh, heart-wrenching breakup? Yep, in fact, it is.
A 2004 study, led by Cohen, concluded that we expect losing an on-screen “friend” will be as painful as losing a real one. And both breakups—real and imagined—had surprisingly parallel effects. “When the characters went off the air, the strength of the relationship predicted how sad people were, just as you would expect with other types of friends,” says Cohen. The closer people felt to the characters and the more often they had watched them, the more upset they were by the loss.
As with any breakup, we need closure to move on, and as with any breakup, we don’t always get it. “When we don’t get that closure, it’s frustrating,” says Chris. “You’ve seen all these characters grow, but you’re ultimately not going to know where or how their stories end.”
In one infamous example, HBO’s Carnivale was abruptly cancelled after the second season, leaving fans in the dark about some major plot threads—including whether leading characters lived or died. Frustrated fans organized petitions and mailing drives to get the show renewed, sending more than 50,000 emails to the network in one weekend. Their effort forced one of the creators to reveal which characters would have survived, illustrating how deeply we come to care about these characters’ fictional futures.
Bonding over a cancelled show can even spark a real-life friendship—one where the other person actually knows you exist. “I’ve had friendships start because we were drunk at a bar and someone said ‘I love The Wire,’” says Laura. Think of that next time you’ve just lost a whole day to reruns.
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