We all knew how important it was for Don Draper to find empathy in a stranger at the end of “Mad Men,” but what you may not have known is what that moment — and the long journey leading up to it — meant for you. According to a recent study first reported on in New York Magazine, watching certain TV shows can actually make you a more emotionally engaged person. High-quality television dramas can increase viewers’ emotional intelligence, meaning that watching complex characters dealing with tricky personal issues or questionable moral choices can actually make you more empathetic.
Titled “Fiction and Social Cognition: The Effect of Viewing Award-Winning Television Dramas on Theory of Mind,” the study focused on 100 people asked to watch one of two TV dramas — “Mad Men” or “The West Wing” — versus a nonfiction program — either “Shark Week: Jaws Strikes Back” or “How the Universe Works.” Viewers were then given a test often used by psychologists to gauge emotional intelligence, in which you’re asked to look at 36 pairs of eyes and determine what emotion each set is trying to convey. After finding that people who watched the dramas fared better on the test, the study was repeated with new programs — “Lost” and “The Good Wife” versus “Nova” and “Through the Wormhole” — as well as a control group who watched nothing. TV drama viewers again scored better on the test.
Though the study itself is somewhat flawed by the comparison shows chosen for the experiment (as Melissa Dahl notes in her report), the results remain a logical takeaway, as well as a pleasant one for anyone who watches too much television (aka, yours truly). To that end, we’ve analyzed why the shows from the study may have been so emotionally engaging and come up with a few more shows that match the parameters. In other words, these are the shows to binge if you’re on a quest to improve your emotional intelligence (while watching some damn good television). Considering this is Indiewire’s core mission in TV coverage — attention paid to the best of the best from the small screen — the list could certainly be longer, but these picks may be more challenging than other “great” options.
There’s no secret why this would be the go-to option for researchers Jessica Black and Jennifer L. Barnes. “Mad Men” dealt with emotional repression in a time when being yourself wasn’t really a viable option — especially for women like Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Betty (January Jones). Plus, the man at “Mad Men’s” core was a lost soul looking for nothing short of the meaning of life. “Complex,” “emotional” and “high-quality” all only begin to describe the four-time Emmy winner for Outstanding Drama Series.
Key Episode: It would be hard to go wrong with the finale, “Person to Person” — I mean, just look at the title — as Don bounces back and forth across the emotional spectrum, and Peggy is given a long-awaited win.
“The West Wing”
Who doesn’t love “The West Wing”? With a steadfast moral compass and grand, big picture ideas being dealt with by relatable, lovable characters, Aaron Sorkin’s award-winning political drama is always a great choice, no matter the reasoning.
Key Episode: Boy, do I hope participants in the study sat down to watch Season 2’s pitch-perfect Christmas episode, “Noël.” Not only does Josh’s (Bradley Whitford) time in therapy build to an immensely satisfying finale — while pushing the character through a range of internal conflicts — but it nicely teases what’s come before and what’s to come for anyone who had yet to check out Aaron Sorkin’s masterpiece. (Toby’s Season 7 space-shuttle-information-leak plot would also have been a great choice for this, had it not been so freaking awful.)
Featuring a vast array of characters with diverse origins who are put under a great deal of psychological distress, “Lost” certainly qualifies as a complex character study (even if you don’t consider it “one of the greats”). The ABC drama’s flashback structuring also established deeper connections between audience members and the people on screen, especially when considering how intimately viewers got to know each “character of the week.”
Key Episode: Though just about any flashback episode focusing on a fan favorite would work, I’d go with “The Man Behind the Curtain,” which helps add definition and dimension to Ben Linus, who up until this point was strictly the face of the feared and despised “Others.”
“The Good Wife”
Relatable and powerful drama, with many well-developed side characters to boot, “The Good Wife” is a treasure trove for empathy, especially in its first few seasons. Our admiration comes in part from the marketing team’s ballsy awards campaigning, but viewers have plenty to enjoy — and fall for — as well.
Key Episode: To add an extra level of emotional understanding, I’d recommend watching the much-discussed Season 6 finale, in which Alicia (Julianna Margulies) meets with Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) for a final goodbye; a goodbye that was apparently done via green screen because the two actresses were in such a bitter feud. Audiences can really test their emotional intelligence by trying to spot any breaks in character as their true selves slipped out.
Considered by some to be the greatest television show ever made (but come on), “Breaking Bad” hits every aspect needed for the study. Quality? Check. Complexity? Check? Multiple Perspectives? Check. A five-season-long arc focusing on discovering your true self when pushed to the brink of death? Check.
Key Episode: “Phoenix” may be the tipping point for Walter White, and it’s undoubtedly one of the series’ most challenging episodes. After returning to his partner’s house to try to talk some sense into Jesse, Walter is forced to make a choice between doing what’s right in the moment and what may be right in the long run. The “wrong” side of each choice is soul-crushing, as it appears, at the time, either decision will lead to someone’s death. Walter makes the hard decision, and one that many viewers still recoil from to this day.
“It’s almost some kind of achievement to say you made a post-apocalyptic show that was too bleak!” Yes, Tom Perrotta, author of the novel and co-creator of the HBO drama, it is an achievement. “The Leftovers” has proven so affecting with its analysis of every reaction to loss imaginable that it’s actually repelling viewers. They may escape a confrontation by saying, “It’s too sad,” but what they’re really saying is “I can’t deal with it.” Even for a post-apocalyptic tale, “The Leftovers” is just too real for some people. But that makes it all the more valuable as a way of understanding the human condition.
Key Episode: While it’s tempting to say the pilot, watching Nora go through the various stages of grief in “Guest” — an hour all to herself — may be the best and most accessible moment for the series.
If “The Leftovers” is about the deconstruction of the nuclear family, then “The Americans” is about what brings it together. Constantly under threat from exterior forces and interior lies, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’ examination of two KGB spies first asked the audience to analyze real emotions from fake ones as Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) tried to figure out if they were partners or a couple, even after having two children. It’s since moved on to deeper levels of how loyalty and desire can clash, especially in terms of how you raise your kids. “The Americans” expects a lot from its audience, and the reward is aptly rich.
Key Episode: Everything leading up to this point is absolutely essential, but we’re still reeling from the Season 3 confrontation between Paige and her parents in Episode 10. If emotional intelligence also includes being able to adequately express your feelings through words, “Stingers” is essential viewing.
Okay, okay. We know Netflix’s animated series from Raphael Bob-Waksberg is a comedy, and, you know, animated; so it’s probably harder for viewers to recognize the human facial tics of a drunken horse. Yet the depth of emotion that goes into this continuous exercise in soul-searching make “BoJack” a must-see for anyone working to raise their empathetic IQ. Easy answers don’t exist in this anthropomorphic universe, making it all the more like the one in which we actually live.
Key Episode: “Escape From L.A.” isn’t just the best Kurt Russell-on-a-surfboard movie anymore (wait, he’s not on a surfboard in “Captain Ron,” right?). It’s also (arguably) the most telling episode of “BoJack Horseman” to date. In the penultimate half-hour of Season 2, BoJack (Will Arnett) turns a random road trip into a lengthy stay with an old flame as he tries to analyze his own mistakes on the path of life. BoJack being BoJack, he commits a few new errors to add to the heap and finds himself again adrift in search of happiness. Combining deep conversations with wild hallucinations, “Escape From L.A.” digs deep into the emotional fractures scattered through our protagonist’s mind. Your own reaction to what’s within will reflect on more than just the show.