the crying game

The Five Most Tear-Jerking Tropes of TV Medical Dramas

Photo: TNT

David E. Kelley returned to the hospital drama with last night’s premiere of Monday Mornings, an ensemble doctor show that strenuously avoids most of the quirkiness that makes David E. Kelley shows what they are (or … were). Instead, Monday is a really by-the-book series that seems desperate for melodrama. It wants to pluck your heart strings! It wants that so badly. So listen up, show. If you’re not going to be narratively adventurous or have interesting characters or acknowledge that the depiction of a Korean doctor speaking in broken English and not understanding feelings is at best problematic and at worst totally racist, then the least you can do is make us cry. Doctor shows are made for weeping! It’s easy. Just pick one of these five options.

1. Kill a pregnant woman but save her baby.
Holy God, this is the saddest. ER’s famous first-season episode “Love’s Labor Lost” is the gold standard for this, but it’s appeared on Grey’s and House too. (This works on nondoctor shows too. Holla atcha, Downton Abbey!) It’s sad to watch the woman die (in surgery, as a result of complications), but the real tear bonanza comes from telling the distraught husband/father what happened. Bonus tears if we don’t actually hear the conversation but instead see it — through a glass window, maybe? — while hearing a sad song and have to go just on body language. When the new dad collapses or when the doctor somberly removes his or her scrub hat, that’s when the real waterworks start.

2. Kill a kid.
Duh, again, so sad. But it’s extra sad when the child dies of a terminal or degenerative illness and is tragically able to express wisdom about the transient nature of existence. Think Scotty Anspaugh on ER or the little girl on Grey’s who wanted to take a trip to Mexico. Last night’s Monday Mornings tried to squeeze a tear out of a child’s death, and hey, we’re not made of stone, but it doesn’t quite join the pantheon of Ultimate Sadness since we never met the character before and he didn’t do anything particularly defining.

3. Kill a regular.
This is where the weep fiesta really gets going. Mark Greene’s death on ER, Sloan’s death on Grey’s, George’s death on Grey’s, Megan’s agonizing suicide on Nip/Tuck, Amber’s fatal accident on House, Dell on Private Practice. There’s also the shocking-suicide route, like with Gant on ER or Kutner on House. Oy, pass the tissues.

4. Wait, murder a regular.
Grey’s has sort of perfected this, what with its several murdered characters (miss U but not really, Charlie). But don’t forget about ER’s Lucy Knight, who died from complications after being stabbed.

5. Kill an old person.
Scrubs did it best, but this is a go-to for what are kind of unearned tears: Have an old person be particularly charming/helpful to the doctors. Step two, begin killing this character. Step three, have a montage where our bereft doctors have to gaze at the dying patient. Step four, have someone break down crying as the cue to the audience that this is a good time to let the waterworks open.

The Five Most Tear-Jerking Medical-Drama Tropes