A lot of movies and TV shows have been made based on real life events, probably more than you imagine. Some of them were dedicated to the lives of famous people, others showed big historic events. Filmmakers have also created some great (and some not so great) movies based on tragic events. Exploring real life tragic stories, they give their audience a new perspective on things and food for some thought.
Unfortunately, not every tragedy is left in the past. Events that affect our lives in a grave manner still occur, leaving many people at a loss as to how to process them. And though most of the time we don’t see television as anything more than entertainment, some of the best TV shows went above and beyond to help the viewers cope with trauma when encountering a tragedy in life, or dealing with a loss of a beloved cast member.
For this article, we have collected examples of how shows dealt with public and personal tragic events. Do you think they did the correct thing? If you were the network executive or series creator, how would you have dealt with any of these situations? Share with us in the comments. If you know any similar cases, recommend some shows to watch that dealt with real life tragedies.
When you think about Sesame Street, the last thing on your mind is tragedy. It’s a kids’ show that teaches them to read, count, recognize colors, shapes, and expand their vocabulary. However, the creators of the show realized that outside the classroom, kids come in contact with the real world, and it’s not always full of joy. That’s why they made sure children are introduced to such difficult concepts as prejudice, divorce, and even death.
In 1982, when actor Will Lee, who played one of the first human characters, Mr. Hooper, on the show passed away due to a heart attack, the show creators dedicated an entire episode to him. Upon hearing about Mr. Hooper’s demise, Big Bird goes through all the feelings and concerns any child might have in such situations, one of the biggest ones being the uncertainty of the future without the adult who used to care about him.
Before creating this episode, writers consulted child psychologists to make sure they used the right words and the right tone so as not to overwhelm the kids, but at the same time get the message across. Meanwhile, they didn’t dive too deep into more complex issues of the circle of life, instead just reassuring Big Bird (and every child watching) that even though their beloved adult is gone, there will be someone to take care of them and they will be safe.
This episode won a Peabody Award and a Daytime Emmy Award.
Throughout its lifetime, The Simpsons proved to be capable of not only drawing marvelous parody parallels with real life but also predicting the future on several occasions — while still remaining sarcastic. But it turns out the series could also be soft and heartfelt, as proved by the Diary Queen episode.
In 2021, when their 32nd season was on air, episode 12 was released as a tribute to actress Marcia Wallace, who voiced Edna Krabappel on the show until her death in 2013. In the episode, Bart finds her diary during a yard sale at Ned Flanders’ house. Reading it leads him to realize a lot of important things. A montage of Wallace’s voice is used throughout the series as a voiceover.
It is not an uncommon practice for sitcoms to replace actors, giving the same character a new face, when the original cast member, for whatever reason, can’t continue their job anymore. However, when actor John Ritter, who played the father on 8 Simple Rules… for Dating My Teenage Daughter passed away at the age of 54, instead of replacing him and pretending that nothing happened, the show creators decided to address the issue.
Ritter’s character, Paul Hennessy, was the husband of Cate, played by Katey Sagal, and the father of three teenagers. Oftentimes, he was the only voice of reason and sanity in the entire household. People often commented on the great chemistry Ritter had with Sagal.
The show’s writers went with the truth, giving Paul the same cause of death as Ritter in real life. While not losing the overall funny sitcom vibe, they managed to make it very heartfelt, authentic, and not tacky. One of the production choices was to omit the live audience for this episode, which created a deafening silence, very becoming of the feeling when you lose a loved one. One of the actors on the show, James Garner, later commented that every emotion the cast portrayed in the episode was very real.
When Carrie Fisher passed away in 2016, it was a huge loss not only for her family and colleagues, but all movie goers in the world. Besides many other works, Fisher was a regular cast member on Family Guy where she voiced Peter Griffin’s boss, Angela.
And though since its first episode in 1999, Family Guy hasn’t been particularly known for subtlety and reserved emotions, often not shying away from off-color humor, the show dealt with Fisher’s passing in an unexpectedly warm and emotional way. In the show, Angela passes away because she went for a swim after a meal. Peter gives a eulogy where mentions that Angela “may be gone, but her voice will live on in DVD, Hulu Plus, and tiny droid-projected messages.” He ends his speech with “I may have lost a boss, but heaven has gained a princess.”
To stay on brand, however, the show places Peter at the wrong service, which he doesn’t discover until later.
The 9/11 tragedy was an indescribable shock for the entire world. Sesame Street, which was in its 33rd season at that time, decided to dedicate the remaining four episodes of the season to address what happened in hopes to help their young viewers cope with the confusion and fear the event caused them.
Of course, before beginning the production, they consulted child psychologists and emergency responders to make sure the content they created would not overwhelm children even more. After lots of considerations, the show creators decided to explore the topics of fear and intolerance.
Instead of mentioning 9/11 directly, they made an episode where a fire breaks out at Mr. Hooper’s store, while Elmo is inside. An NYPD firefighter shows up to rescue him and also tells him about the job of firefighters. After Elmo is out of the store, the firefighter lets him ride his fire engine and shows him protective equipment. Elmo learns to overcome his fear and also understands that being scared is okay. The message to children throughout the episode was that even though they may find themselves in scary situations, there are always adults who will work to protect them.
To address the concept of intolerance, one of the episodes had Big Bird’s friend, a seagull, come visit him. During his stay, the seagull didn’t want to hang out with Snuffy because he is not a bird.
Frasier was arguably one of the funniest, wittiest, and most popular shows throughout the ‘90s and in the early 2000s. It had both expert writing and an outstanding cast led by Kelsey Grammer, who played the titular character Dr. Frasier Crane. Watching the chaotic events unfold when he moves to Seattle, you would probably never suspect the amount of struggle that went on behind the scenes.
Grammer’s younger years were full of pain and tragic events that eventually took their toll on the actor. Both his father and sister were murdered, and his grandfather, the only close relative he had left, died when Grammer was still a teenager. Unable to cope with the trauma, Grammer turned to substance use to deal with his mental health.
In 1996, during one of episodes of being under the influence, Grammer ended up in a car crash. This was when the cast and crew realized an intervention was necessary if they wanted to help him. Later many of them admitted that showing up on his doorstep to convince the actor to check into rehab was a terrifying thought, as they couldn’t predict how he would have reacted. However, Grammer realized it was done out of concern for his health and well-being and complied with their request. Filming had to be paused for a while but in the end it was worth it.
Everyone knows Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly, but if you watched the ‘90s sitcom Spin City, you also knew him as Michael Flaherty, the deputy mayor of New York everyone liked. Although the show had a lot of strong aspects to its credit, like great cast and excellent writing, Fox was still one of the main reasons for the show’s success. That’s why when he announced his decision to leave due to health issues, it was a huge shock for everybody.
After Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, it became progressively more difficult for him to keep up with the shooting schedules, which is why he decided to leave after the 100th episode. To write him out of the show, the writers created a plotline where Flaherty took the fall for his colleagues, having, as a result, to resign and move to a different city. Los Angeles Times stated that Fox participated in the script writing for his final episode, because in his own words, he “didn’t want to be flippant with the way that other people felt about it.”
Charlie Sheen was cast to play the new mayor, but the show had lost a certain portion of its appeal, and was canceled in 2002.
Martin Luther King Jr. was and still remains one of the most prominent figures in American history. From 1955, he was an active civil rights leader and the voice of the people of color. His assassination on April 4, 1968 was a tragic loss for every progressive person in the country.
To pay tribute to his persona and the tremendous work he did, the 40th Annual Academy Awards was postponed by two days and aired on April 10 instead of April 8. Before this was announced, four performers of color, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr, Louis Armstrong, and Diahann Carroll, who were scheduled to participate in the ceremony, announced they would be withdrawing to mourn King’s death. Thanks to the decision of the organizers, they were able to return as initially planned.
Anthony Bourdain rose to fame as a celebrity chef and author. He was also a travel documentarian who explored the world’s various cultures, cuisines, and international life. He also had his own TV show on CNN called Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. The show, which ran for 12 seasons until Bourdain’s demise, explored lesser known corners of the world and introduced their culture and cuisine to the audience.
The final episode aired on November 11, 2018, 5 months after Bourdain took his life. In this episode, the chef returned to his hometown of New York, exploring the Lower East Side. He spoke openly about his former days as a drug addict chef, as well as the lives of other residents of the area, many of whom would be new arrivals who still had to find their path in New York. He also talked about the influences of the era, its music and culture.
The episode was more than just a piece of nostalgia. It is acceptance of your past and understanding that it doesn’t matter where you come from or how you started off. If you choose to achieve a specific goal, you can always turn your life around.
When Luke Perry died at the age of 52 in 2019, the creators of the show Riverdale, where he played the father of the main character, Archie Andrews, decided not to rush addressing this issue. Showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa mentioned that with all the other plotlines in place, they thought it would be best to wait until the opening of the next season.
They came up with the idea that a heroic death would be very becoming of Fred, Perry’s character, and it could also have a meaningful impact on his son Archie. In the episode, Fred dies in a hit-and-run accident after he stops to help a woman who has car trouble. The role of the woman is played by Shannen Doherty, Perry’s former co-star on Beverly Hills 90210 and real-life friend.
Long before Perry’s demise, he had discussed with the show creators the possibility of bringing in Doherty to Riversdale. They thought having someone the actor deeply cared for on the episode that would pay tribute to his memory would be the right thing to do.
The final frame of the episode was just a blank black screen with the inscription “In Memoriam Luke Perry 1966-2019.”
The 90s sitcom NewsRadio was well-known for never taking things seriously. However, sometimes life brings things that you can’t help but acknowledge with solemnity. For NewsRadio, this happened when actor Phil Hartman passed away. His character, radio personality Bill McNeal, was a key part of the group dynamic, even if his self-involved personality didn’t necessarily make him everyone’s favorite.
In the episode, Bill McNeal dies of a heart attack, and the episode opens with the team gathered in the office after the service. Each of them reads a personal letter Bill left them. Unfortunately, in real life, Hartman’s cause of death was much more terrifying: he was shot by his wife before she took her own life.
Another cast member, Stephen Root, talked about how everyone decided not to rehearse the episode before shooting, and just let their genuine emotions flow. Their sincerity shows in the opening of the episode. After some time, they get back to their usual humorous ways to show that life goes on and we have to carry on despite the pain.
Even if you don’t like musicals, there is no chance you haven’t seen at least some snippets of Glee or listened to their covers of popular songs of past and present. They did a lot of things right, including creating the character of Finn Hudson, a high school football star who also had a great singing voice. Unlike many high school movie stereotypes where football players are often portrayed as arrogant bullies who make fun of everyone who does art or science, Finn was also charming and sweet.
It was extremely hard both for the cast and crew as well as the audiences to lose him after Cory Monteith, who played the part of Finn, died in 2013 at the age of 31. An entire episode was dedicated to him, where students sing their last messages to Finn. “Make You Feel My Love” sung by Rachel (actress Lea Michele) was especially painful to listen to, since not only did Rachel and Finn date onscreen, Lea and Cory were a real life couple too.
Mass shootings are a tragedy, and there is no getting used to them. In April 1999, the Columbine shooting shook the nation when 12 students and one teacher died at the hands of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, senior students of the same Columbine High School, in Littleton, Colorado. Immediately after this horrendous act, both Harris and Klebold took their own lives.
As coincidence would have it, a season 2 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, titled Earshot, was scheduled to be broadcasted. In the episode, Buffy hears someone’s thoughts and assumes it to be one of her fellow students saying “This time tomorrow, I’ll kill you all.” Even though she later learns that the thought actually belonged to a cafeteria worker, and no one died in the episode, the creators found it reasonable to postpone the airing, what with the media and a certain part of the society going wild and accusing violent games and shows of messing with the heads of the younger generation.
The episode appeared on air two months after the season 3 finale. It delivered a powerful message about the importance of mental health and loneliness.
When Thomas Harris was creating his recurring character Hannibal Lecter, he probably didn’t expect him to find new life on screen. First he was played by Anthony Hopkins in the 1991 classic The Silence of the Lambs, and later, from 2013-2015 by Mads Mikkelsen on the TV show Hannibal that explored the earlier days of Lecter.
In December 2012, several months before the first season of the show went on air, a dreadful tragedy took place in Connecticut. A 20-year-old man killed his mother at home and then committed a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, taking the lives of 20 children and six staff members, before he killed himself. While the country was mourning the victims of the Sandy Hook events, Bryan Fuller, who created Hannibal, asked the broadcasting network to pull one episode off air.
In this particular episode, titled Oeuf, a deranged mother figure (played by Molly Shannon) brainwashed children into killing other children. Fuller mentioned in an interview that it was not the graphic imagery that bothered him so much but the topic itself, as it was easy to associate it with the real life events of Sandy Hook Elementary, and he didn’t want his show to cause negative emotions in the audience. The network agreed with him, and the episode never aired.
Mr. Robot tells the story of a genius hacker whose hallucinations mess with his perception of things he sees and hears but this doesn’t stop him from becoming a vigilante. Starring Rami Malek, the show ran for four seasons from 2015 to 2019.
Season 1 finale was filmed and scheduled for airing when television reporter Allison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward were killed in Franklin County, Virginia in August 2015. The culprit, who was a former employee of the station both Parker and Ward worked for, also injured another person and took his own life.
The season finale had a very similar storyline, so the broadcasting network thought it better to postpone the episode out of respect to the victims, their bereaving families, and colleagues.
It was not only Mr. Robot that pulled an episode off air following the Roanoke shooting that took the lives of reporter Allison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward. Documentary Now! had an episode scheduled to be broadcasted the very next day after the tragedy broke out; however, the morning after the shooting, the channel announced its decision to postpone it by a week.
Shot in mockumentary style, this show created parodies of well-known documentary films, recreating their storytelling style with a similar, though fictitious story. In the episode Dronez that was supposed to go on air on August 27, 2015, the reporters were investigating El Chingon, the infamous and elusive leader of a Mexican drug cartel. The network officials stated that this was the most appropriate thing to do out of respect to the victims and their families.
Unfortunately, not every time an episode was postponed or removed altogether had noble reasons behind it. One such example is the story of Rip Torn and his character Don Geiss on the American sitcom 30 Rock.
In 2010, Torn was detained after he broke into a bank while drunk and carrying a loaded gun. Several charges were pressed against the actor, including reckless endangerment, criminal mischief, and illegal carrying of firearms, which he all pleaded guilty to.
The prosecutors later mentioned that he was so intoxicated that he believed he was in his own house and even left his hat and boots by the door. Thankfully, no one was hurt on the scene, so Torn only got a suspended sentence and probation. However, the channel deemed it necessary to remove him from the show and subsequently wrote his character out of the plot.
Episode 3 of season 8, “The One Where Rachel Tells…”, was packed with a lot of funny, witty, and goofy scenes, like any other Friends episode. Rachel finally tells Ross about their baby, Joey and Phoebe are locked out of their own apartment, and Chandler and Monica go on honeymoon.
A considerable part of the episode was dedicated to the misfortunes Chandler and Monica run into during their honeymoon because of another newly wed couple. However, originally, the script included scenes where Chandler made fun of the airport security and Monica pretended to give terrorist commands to Joey and Phoebe over the phone. But as the episode was scheduled to go on air on October 11, 2001, exactly one month after the 9/11 tragedy, the creators decided to replace this entire plotline and filmed additional scenes, writing the rival honeymoon couple into the story.
The Parkland shooting has gained a lot of media attention since the surviving students of the Stoneman Douglas high school were very vocal about it, demanding a viable solution for the gun control problem in the United States. The shooting, which occurred on February 14, 2018, took the lives of 17 students and left 17 others injured. In the following period, some of the surviving students committed suicide, unable to cope with the PTSD and survivor’s guilt.
In the light of these events, the Paramount Network announced its decision to postpone the premier of their second scripted series Heathers. Based on the 1988 dark comedy starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, it is built around a high school student and her feud with a clique of popular mean girls called The Heathers.
Prior to the premier, the network sent out several episodes to journalists for review. Many agreed that while episode five was probably the reason the network decided to delay the release, the entire show treated violence and other social issues inappropriately.
If there is one thing anyone knows about American Horror Story, it is that the series never held back from being graphic. Gory violence and rather explicit sexual situations were frequently featured in the episodes. But even with that being the case, the creators made a decision to heavily edit the opening scene of the episode “Mid-Western Assassin” that depicted a mass shooting at a political rally after the 2017 Las Vegas shooting took place.
A 64-year-old Nevada resident opened fire into the crowd attending the Route 91 Harvest music festival. Standing above the crowd on the 32nd floor, he killed 60 people and injured over 400. The subsequent panic increased this number to almost 900. When the police reached his room, he was found dead.
Even though the scene in the AHS: Cult episode was very different from the Las Vegas event, the creators reasoned that it might traumatize those directly related to the tragedy, removed a lot of graphic details, and reduced the scene in length to the bare minimum necessary to keep the plot together.
Another TV series that had to make adjustments to their schedule was The Last Ship. Executive produced by Michael Bay, along with several others, the show follows the crew of a surviving team of a fictional missile destroyer on its mission to find a cure against a global pandemic and save humanity after the said pandemic wiped out 80 percent of the world’s population.
The shooting that took place in the early morning hours of the same day season 3 was set to premier was assessed to be the deadliest in the US history, taking the lives of 50 people and injuring another 53. The gunman who opened fire at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, was killed in the standoff with the police.
Later in the day, TNT announced their decision to postpone the premier in the wake of the event. Though it was not explicitly stated by the executives, many assumed that the reason behind that decision was a shooting scene in a Vietnamese nightclub.
Set in New York city, it was almost obligatory for the NBC drama Law & Order: SVU to address the 9/11 tragedy. So when the third season went on air on September 28, 2001, a new voiceover was added to it:
“On September 11, 2001, New York City was ruthlessly and criminally attacked. While no tribute can ever heal the pain of that day, the producers of Law & Order dedicate this season to the victims and their families and to the firefighters and police officers who remind us every day with their lives and courage what it truly means to be an American.”
The footage of the Twin Towers that had been permanently featured in the opening sequence for the first two seasons was removed in the third season.
Castle, named after its main character best-selling novelist Richard Castle, managed to combine crime mystery and comedy. It ran successfully for 8 seasons over 7 years. However, when the Boston Marathon bombing occurred in 2013, the creators of the show thought it would be appropriate to postpone by a week one of the episodes of season five that was on air at the time. The Tsarnaev brothers planted two pressure cooker bombs at the finish line of the annual marathon race held in the greater Boston area. Three people died and hundreds were injured, out of which 17 lost limbs.
Titled Still, the main plotline of episode 21 that was supposed to go on air on April 22 is focused on detective Beckett, the female lead of the series, accidentally stepping on a pressure bomb. While the team managed to disarm it and save Beckett, the creators thought it was too soon to show the episode that might have brought back the trauma of the Boston Marathon.
It is overwhelmingly sad how many shows had to postpone going on air because of a mass shooting. Shooter was one of them, as it was set to premier in July 2016 but had to delay its first episode by a week due to a sniper’s assault on police officers in Dallas, Texas.
With the entire story of the show set around a master sniper, it was only natural for the channel to make this decision. Though Bob Lee Swagger, played by Ryan Phillippe, is shown to use his impressive skills only to uncover a conspiracy formed to eliminate him, his excessive arsenal and the amount of violence in the story would have a way too strong of an association with the recent Dallas event.
Arturo Castro has performed in film and television for over 10 years and created numerous comic characters. For his sketch show Alternatino with Arturo Castro on Comedy Central, he played not one, not two, but multiple characters. The show that depicted “Arturo’s experiences as a Latino millennial in the United States” premiered on June 18, 2019 and ran successfully for six episodes until the mass shooting at the Garlic Festival happened.
On July 28, 2019, a 19-year-old male broke into the site of the Garlic Festival, a famous food festival in Northern California, and opened gunfire. He took the lives of three people, two of them underage, and injured many more. After a shootout with the police on site, he shot himself.
Following this event, Castro decided to postpone the seventh episode of his show that accidentally was built on the topic of mass shooting. A week later, before airing the sketch, Castro took to Twitter to leave a heartfelt message about the tragedy and how mass shootings need to end.
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