Reel Therapy

Unraveling the mind through film

Emotional Shifts in TV"s Latest Hit Drama

the psychological processes underlying the "hook" moment in television shows

Last week marked the premiere of NBC's highly anticipated family drama "Parenthood," featuring Gilmore Girls' Lauren Graham and Six Feet Under's Peter Krause. At first glance this show is a more melodramatic version of "Modern Family," and strives for an equal ratio of laughs and tears. From grandfather to grandson, each member of this extended, quirky family feeds the often dysfunctional, ultimately loving family dynamic. Most shows that sprout from sit-com land quickly fall to the middle of the pack, becoming a little too boring and forgettable. I predict that this show will stay afloat with success...because of the presence of emotional shifts.

What are emotional shifts? Most of us spend most of our time living on auto-pilot, re-enacting maladaptive patterns, remaining unaware of problems and gravitating toward the disappointing inertia of the status quo. Emotional shifts are rare but profound moments in which we jerk ourselves out of auto-pilot and view life through a prism of newfound, refreshing clarity and wisdom. We experience insight into the our most complex problems, notice the most invisible of patterns and embrace the strange scariness of growth before, of course, enacting positive change. In short, we momentarily convert ourselves into a cross between Sigmund Freud and the Dalai Lama.

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The more emotional shifts in an episode, the deeper the characters, and the more successful the show. This is a sink-or-swim rule for character-based (versus plot-based) sit-coms.

By my count, there were two major emotional shifts in the season opener.

1. Sarah is a down-on-her-luck, single mom who has returned home seeking fresh beginnings. She experiences an emotional shift when at dinner with her high school sweetheart, a disappointingly balding but funny man whom she hasn't seen for decades. As it turns out, he still loves her. He presents a relationship ring that he'd kept all those years without her. She cries. This is an emotional shift. The effortless tenderness and adoration with which he exudes is a world apart from the emotional detachment of her loser ex-husband. Yesterday she was the victim of instability, undeserving of love. Today she is a princess worthy of undying gratitude. A wave of relief washes over her and immense self-loathing is replaced with a school girl's giddiness.

2. Adam is the high achieving rock of the family. He fixes the pipes, coaches the t-ball team, supports his reluctant sister (Sarah) and cheer-leads his son, Haddie out of a funk. He experiences an emotional shift when he realizes "there is something with Haddie." As it turns out, Haddie's long list of eccentricities, ranging from running to third base out of the batter's box to obsessively jumping in puddles candles is, in fact, an organized cluster of symptoms termed Asperger's Syndrome. In Adam's eyes, yesterday Haddie was an endearing goofball who just needed to give sports and social activities "a real chance." Today he is an individual crippled by a brain designed to miss simple social cues like responding to hello with "hello to you, too." A wave of fear washes over him and aloof rationales are replaced with the brave confessions of a determined father.

There are many ways to identify emotional shifts. The easiest and most stereotypical way is to catch when the dramatic background music starts to play. This is often accompanied by a rather lengthy close-up of the character, in which very little is happening on the outside because oh-so-much is shifting on the inside.

I use the tear-o-meter. Meaning, Sarah's dinner table tears and Adam's frightened glances at Haddie represent emotional epiphanies in the lives of adaptive, capable people. As a viewer I pick up on this and I channel their emotional states, which often leads to: a. crying b. feeling like I should cry but biting my lip instead or c. (most likely) recognizing that I don't want to cry and feeling vaguely disturbed with myself...

Jeremy Clyman, Psy.D., attained his doctorate in clinical psychology at Yeshiva University.

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