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Fan faves dying on popular TV shows

Maggie Smith, left, as the Dowager Countess and

Maggie Smith, left, as the Dowager Countess and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary in PBS' "Downton Abbey." Photo Credit: Carnival Films

'Downton Abbey" fans -- brace yourselves.

If you thought the unexpected death of a certain character (we're keeping mum for those behind in their viewing) was tough, you'd better have smelling salts handy for Sunday's climactic season finale (9 on WNET/13).

The recent "Downton" death and public reaction on Facebook and Twitter highlights viewers' devoted attachment to TV series regulars, and the grief that comes with a fatal plot twist.

The reasons are simple enough. Unlike those who flatline on film, TV characters feel like family. We grow up with them, inviting the Sopranos or Jack Bauer into our home each week or on weekend-long marathons. Frequency breeds familiarity. Many "Downton" fans are more in touch with the Grantham family than their own.

"It's a gut reaction," says Alan Muraoka, aka Alan on "Sesame Street," who debuted as the new owner of Hooper's Store in 1998. The death of Mr. Hooper is one of the few instances in which an actor -- Will Lee -- actually died. The show tackled it head on in an Emmy-winning episode where Big Bird learns about grief.

"It was a milestone," says Muraoka. "Mr. Hooper was beloved by kids and parents alike. It was like having a grandfather pass away."

Here, the decades' other most shocking deaths. Needless to say... spoiler alert.

1970s: Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson), "M*A*S*H" -- The death that started it all. In the last seconds of Season 3's 1975 finale, Radar O'Reilly (Gary Burghoff) announces that Blake, who had been discharged from the army, died when his helicopter was shot down over the Sea of Japan.

1980s: Mr. Hooper, "Sesame Street" -- "I don't like it -- it makes me sad," Big Bird says in 1983's emotional episode "Farewell, Mr. Hooper."

1990s: Gary (Peter Horton), "Thirtysomething" -- Producers intended to kill off Nancy (Patricia Wettig), but her struggle with ovarian cancer became such a symbol of hope for cancer patients that she was spared; instead, English prof Gary died in a car accident in 1991.

2000s: Jin and Sun (Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim), "Lost" -- Tough decade because by now, writers pluck off fave characters with abandon on shows like "24," "Angel" and "The Sopranos." But the passing of this loving couple, who choose to die together, was particularly rough on fans in 2010.

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