Night and Day parodies soapy dysfunction in spades, with pretty much every character of note. Many of the weekly episode blocks/omnibuses will showcase a ‘breakdown of the week’ – to cite just a few examples, Natalie Harper randomly becoming a prostitute; hairdresser Roxanne Doyle attacking the barnets of all who have wronged her; Mike Brake stuffing himself with junk food to a cartoon-like degree; and a suicidal Duncan Harper holding his friends hostage with a grenade in a church as they confess their sins, in an attempt to talk him out of detonating it. Lampshaded in the final few episodes, as all the characters begin to book in therapy sessions with none other than the Big Bad (who is not a therapist), without any sensible explanation.
Lana Lang's parents were killed by a meteor. And she never, ever stops Wangsting about it.
Lois Lane's mother died when she was six, and her army general father is not very nice. She also has a manipulative, backstabbing sister.
Jimmy Olsen's father is a huge drunk and he never met his mother.
And it extends to dysfunction relationships. And we mean, ALL of them, with the only completely healthy pairings being Jonathan and Martha.
Lionel and Lilian Luthor - just look at the Lex entry.
Clark and Lana is built on secrets and lies, plus a huge dose of wangsting. Lana's vain, self-absorbed personality did not help one bit.
Every character in Glee is somewhat misunderstood, or is a bullied minority in some ways who goes through a trauma conga-line at some point in the series. Look what happens to the original members of New Directions in just season 1 alone;
Rachel Berry never knew her mother, doesn't know which one of her fathers is her real dad, suffers tremendous bullying and has no friends whatsoever, finally meets her mother but finds out she wants nothing to do with her, and discovers her first boyfriend was only pretending to date her. He then goes on to egg her *she's a vegan, which makes it infinitely worse for her* in front of fifty other jerring show choir contestants.
Finn Hudson's father died in the Afghanistan war when he was just a baby, which resulted in his mother's inevitable depression, he grew up struggling at school and then his girlfriend cheated on him with his best friend, who impregnated her. She then lead him to believe it was his baby. He does not take it well when he finds out, and goes all "HULK SMASH" on the choir room chair.
Mercedes Jones was a victim of racist and sizist bullying ever since she was a little girl and developed a *brief* eating dissorder mid series, which culminated in her fainting from starvation. She was also rejected by her best friend (who's gay).
Kurt Hummels mother died when he was eight, and Kurt was bullied horribly for his sexuallity in high school. *it gets a lot worse for him in season 2*
Tina Cohen Chang was so painfully shy that she faked a stutter to avoid having to talk to people. She only had two facebook friends (her parents), and though it was never mentioned on the show, was confirmed by Jenna Ushkowitz to be adopted.
Artie Abrams broke both his legs in a car crash when he was eight.
That's just the original six members. That's just season 1 angst. The show gets angstier by the season. Granted, there's still pop classics being sung on cafeteria tables, but for a show where every other scene is a journey song, it's pretty damn heavy.
Much of Joss Whedon's work - Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Angel, mainly. Those few characters without tragic pasts quickly get them within the course of the story, as you know any happy character will either be killed or have a loved one killed.
Even those who are relatively happy will always be revealed to have at least one parent (usually the father) who is either abusive or absent. Then they have a tragic event happen to them as well, anyway, to compound the matter.
In the commentary for A Hole in the World, he observes, "Oh, look at that, they're happy. Better have someone cough up some blood!"
Subverted in the "Fredless" episode of Angel. Fred's parents stop by looking for their daughter, and we are led to believe they may have bad intentions for her. Eventually it's revealed that they are loving people who want the best for their daughter. Ironically, this ends up reminding the rest of the cast what a sucky relationship they have/had with their own parents.
Echoed for laughs in Lineage:
Wesley: If you're here to tell me about how you killed your parents... perhaps it could wait for another time.
Rachel was extremely spoiled, and in early seasons incapable of coping in the real world.
Joey's parents had a poor marriage, with his mother enjoying her father cheating on her.
Interestingly as the series continued a lot of the story arcs are about them overcoming their issues. Phoebe reconnects with her family, becomes more grounded and builds a successful relationship rather than jumping from guy to guy. Monica and Chandler fall in love and find in each other the support their parents never gave them. Ross gradually gets over his divorces, Rachel learns how to be independent, and Joey starts considering committment.
Firefly is better about having a cast with varied backgrounds. River and Simon, however, have a background as traumatic as they come, while Mal and Zoe were comrades on the losing side of a war. Still, the second pair doesn't treat their defeat as entirely traumatic, and focuses on finding little ways to get back at the Alliance (robbery, bar fights, etc.)
Spoofed in a Home on the Strange strip concerning a hypothetical Firefly MMORPG: "It's right in the Terms and Conditions: 'No relationship in the Whedonverse is allowed to end happily...'"
Dollhouse is certainly in this vein. There's a whole episode dedicated to proving that Sierra doesn't belong in the house until she has murdered her rapist!
Degrassi: The Next Generation often has tragic, melodramatic, hard to believe tragedies happen to most of the cast. In a relatively upper-middle class school- in Canada, no less, two students are dead via violence in unrelated incidents, one is crippled, another raped, beaten in a hate crime, had their father die, sent to prison for killing someone in a drag race, contracted HIV, become addicted to cocaine, etc. - all within the same five years.
All Degrassi shows suffer from this, to various extents.
Lost. The majority of characters have issues with their fathers, stepfathers, fathers-in-law, or other father figures (the exceptions being Shannon and Ana Lucia, who hate their stepmother and mother, respectively). Plus various other dysfunctionalities. It's saying something when the former Iraqi torturer is the most level-headed person on the island. One of the earliest episodes is even titled "All the Best Cowboys have Daddy Issues."
Turns out to be an Invoked Trope as Jacob was looking for people who were missing something in their lives to succeed him in protecting the island.
In the HBO series Six Feet Under, every character is subjected to some horrific event at least once within the run of the series. While the show centers around death, most of the characters have lived or will live through situations seemingly worse than death - sometimes to teach them an Aesop and sometimes just to just have them go through horrible events for the sheer pleasure of it - and often leaves them with countless dysfunctions and irrational fears.
Two words: Battlestar Galactica. Anyone who wasn't depressed, delusional, suicidal, emotionally repressed, alcoholic, unlucky in love, and/or really really pissed off at both their parents and the world before the Cylons attacked... sure is now.
Sharon 'Athena' Agathon seems to be doing alright (misplaced Mama Bear moments aside). Even moreso, Helo. For all that he went through on Caprica and back again, he seems to be levelheaded and reasonable.
They have the Screwed Up Past: Athena was a spy ordered to con a human into getting her pregnant, only to fall for the guy and become a traitor to her own people, while Helo was the aforementioned con victim who discovered his love interest/flight partner was not only a spy, but not even the same individual he'd originally known, who was also a spy.
Said original individual forced them to work at staying happy during the last few episodes of the series.
The fact that Helo remains a level-headed family man in spite of all he has to deal with brings new meaning to the phrase "Badass Normal."
In Malcolm in the Middle the entire family is dysfunctional. In one episode Malcolm discovers a "normal" family and starts spending all his time there as the kids' babysitter, enjoying the "normalcy". Until he discovers that they were using a video camera to spy on him (something that is actually considered ok by many when it comes to child care) and he decides that although his family is dysfunctional, they are honest with him.
Cold Case: Lilly Rush's father left her and her younger sister Christina in the 'care' of their alcoholic mother Ellen, who ended up drinking herself to death the same day her daughter got shot almost to death on the job. Christina grew up to be a seductress (even sleeping with Lilly's fiance) and a scam artist, who dated Lilly's partner Scotty Valens and then ran out the moment a police officer from NYC came to Philadelphia to arrest her. Plus what happened to her as a child...
And let's not forget the rest of the cast. Her aforementioned partner, Valens, was already a cocky, renegade Cowboy Cop and Jerk Ass who does have a loving family, but after his schizophrenic fiancee commits suicide, it never got better for him and he eventually crossed the line for good in the series finale by arranging for his mother's rapist murdered in prison.
Lt. Stillman is A Father to His Men (and women), but is married to his job, so much that he actually missed his only child's birth and his wife (who is now a gambler with an abusive husband) left him. Said daughter, who's now an adult and a single mother, was raped and abused by her boyfriend, which led to a very angryyet restrained confrontation.note He could have and had every right to tear into the prick, but at the risk of losing his badge, and the fact that he didn't shows the depth of his duty to the job and his class.
To Elaborate: Elena and Jeremy's parents died before the series started,prompting Jeremy to turn to drugs and alcohol to cope while Elena buries her feelings in her diary.
Jeremy's girlfriend's keep dying, then HE died and was resurrected but his girlfriend Bonnie died in his place, and everyone keeps erasing his memory without his consent.
Elena is in love with two vampires while knowing it's probably not good for her and that her parents were vampire hunters, she learns in the same conversation that she was adopted and that her adoptive father died saving her life, is sometimes implied to have a death wish, she found her birth parents but they died too, was a sacrifice in an arcane ritual, became a vampire against her wishes and nearly ended up committing suicide due to the hunter's curse, turned into a blood hungry psychopath after shutting off her emotions when her brother died,has a tendency to put everyone else's needs above her own even when she really shouldn't, her crazy doppelganger/ancestor stole her body to avoid death, and is now in a magical coma that won't end until her best friend dies.
Stefan and Damon grew up with a verbally abusive father, their mother died(only she really became a vampire and abandoned her family to go on a killing spree until she was trapped in a pocket dimension), they were shot and killed by their own father when they tried to save the women they loved.
Stefan is a ripper, forced Damon to become a vampire against his will, killed his father, has a hero complex, and was friends with Klaus at one point.
Damon has an inferiority complex the size of China towards his brother, spent at least a hundred years trying to free the woman he loved from captivity only to discover she'd been free the whole time and never gave a shit about him, has complicated feelings towards being human, loves Elena so much it could possibly destroy them both, most of his attempts to be good blow up in his face, he actually managed to make some real friends but they keep dying, was held in captivity by the Augustine group for years, and he was killed/ trapped in a pocket dimension with an insane killer.
Caroline's parents are divorced because her father is gay then he died in season three, she wasn't very close to her mother for while and a few years after that changed her mother died of cancer despite Caroline's best attempts to save her, was used as human blood bag by Damon in the first season, became a vampire in the second(or in her words a neurotic control freak perfectionist on crack), her friends keep dying,and she keeps falling for guys who need more therapy than she does.
Bonnie's mother ran out on her when she was three, her father was barely around and didn't approve of the whole witch thing, her grandmother died, by season six her mother is a vampire and her father is dead. The guy she was dating cheated on her with his dead ex-girlfriend,her two best friends are vampires,her love interest died and then she died bringing him back to life, and she ended up stuck in a pocket dimension with Damon and a psychopathic killer.
Matt never knew his father, his mother is a drunk who ran out on him, and he has watched his older sister and friends either die or turn into monsters.
Alaric came home one night to find his wife murdered by a vampire, became a vampire hunter to avenge her only to discover that she wasn't killed but turned at her own request, his new love interest is forcibly turned into a vampire and sacrificed by Klaus, his best friend is Damon, his magic ring turned him into a psychotic killer with a split personality, he was turned into a vampire by a crazy witch who wanted him to kill all vampires, died in Damon's arms, was resurrected and became human again, he met a nice woman with whom he fell in love and was going to marry her but she and their unborn children were murdered at the wedding.
Katherine was forced to give up her daughter moments after giving birth, was exiled and then almost made a sacrifice in an arcane ritual, was on the run from Klaus for over 500 years, became human again against her wishes and was finally dragged off to hell.
Klaus grew up with an abusive father who turned out to not be his real father and who hated him for no real reason, his mother turned him and siblings into vampires to protect them after their younger brother died tragically, his mother sealed his werewolf side in what looks to have been a painful process, he got the hunter's curse, he's got deep abandonment issues that have lead him to dagger his siblings and cart them around in coffins so they won't ever leave him, and both his parents keep trying to kill him.
Elijah is basically a very battered babysitter to all his siblings, he has deep regrets over not protecting Klaus from his father in his youth, he killed the woman he loved, and constantly puts everyone else ahead of himself while keeping his own feelings hidden under a carefully crafted noble demon persona.
Rebekah bore the brunt of Klaus's abuse for a thousand years, has even worse luck in the romance department than Alaric, and desperately wants to be human but always finds that wish out of reach.
Tyler grew up with a verbally abusive father who then died, his girlfriend died and then his favorite uncle, he became a werewolf when he accidentally killed a girl, then he was turned into a hybrid as an experiment,and his mother was murdered after he tried to rebel against Klaus. And that's only the main cast!
This Is Wonderland, starting with the name. Unglamourous lawyers representing hideously dysfunctional people, many of whom are drug addicts, and just waiting for their nervous breakdown. Luckily, it's only a borderline example, as there were a few people who were moderately well adjusted.
John started the series depressed, alone, and friendless, with a psychosomatic limp. He himself acknowledges that meeting Sherlock was the one of the best things that ever happened to him. However, while he is otherwise a very nice guy, throughout the series, he shows himself to be an adrenaline junkie who misses the action of war. As Sherlock lampshades in "His Last Vow":
You're an adrenaline junkie who can't go for a month living in the suburbs without storming a crack den and beating up a junkie. Your best friend is a sociopath who solves crimes as an alternative to getting high. (...) My point is, you are repeatedly drawn to dangerous situations and people.
Mycroft takes many of Sherlock's Insufferable Genius traits Up to Eleven; Mycroft himself once states that he's "living in a world of goldfish". By the beginning of Series 3, Sherlock, at least, has friends; Mycroft does not appear to have any, and Sherlock heavily implies that he is secretly lonely, even if he doesn't realize it.
Molly's father died (implied to have been when she was fairly young), she has a hopeless crush on Sherlock only to be treated as his Chew Toy for much of the early series, briefly dates the guy who turns out to be the most dangerous man in Britain (Moriarty), and "moves on" from Sherlock by getting engaged to a guy who looks and dresses just like him (and they eventually break up). She's also a little socially awkward, though not nearly as bad as Sherlock himself.
Even the more "normal" characters have this. Lestrade and his wife apparently separated in the past, and tried to get back together only to break up again when he discovers (via Sherlock) that she was cheating on him with a PE teacher. He's frequently shown up by an "amateur" detective, and his fellow officers are entirely unsupportive of his inclusion of Sherlock in their cases, leaving Lestrade stuck in the middle.
And Mrs. Hudson is apparently a former exotic dancer whose "pressure point" (weakness) is marijuana, and was married to a man who ran a drug cartel. It was so bad that the reason she "loves Sherlock forever" is because he made sure her husband was executed.
Anderson, formerly Sherlock's Butt Monkey on the forensics team, felt so bad about his role in Sherlock's downfall in "Reichenbach" that he became a conspiracy theorist obsessed with the idea that Sherlock was still alive, grew a Beard of Sorrow, got suspended from Scotland Yard, and is implied to have had a minor Sanity Slippage.
Even the seemingly-normal Mary, John's new wife, fits this. Turns out she's a former CIA assassin who killed a ton of people, and her "name" is actually taken from a stillborn baby; the initials of her real name are A.G.R.A.. She apparently did stuff so bad that she feels certain John would no longer love her if he knew the details about all of it.
In Farscape, everyone starts off with at least a little damage - except John Crichton, the human. Then as the series progresses everyone else manages to shore up each other's sanity...except John, who descends into madness.
While John did have a pretty nice life prior to the show, the whole getting lost far, far from home among aliens, some of whom are trying to capture/torture/kill you, definitely counts as trauma, even before the deliberate crazy-making business.
In Plain Sight: The lead character, Mary, is a US Marshal in the witness protection program. During the pilot, she narrates how good she is at solving other people's problems but not her own. Her father abandoned his family to evade the police when she was a child, and she's been taking care of her alcoholic mother and chronically irresponsible sister ever since. During the course of the series, the sister ends up involved in a drug deal gone bad. Even Mary's sorta-boyfriend is a minor-league baseball player who can't make it to the big leagues, and he's the most normal character in the immediate family. With the exception of Mary's coworkers, everyone else in the show is messed-up, even the witnesses under protection.
Justified - you would expect people in situations that would necessitate witness protection to have experienced some trauma.
Scrubs. For a comedy, most of the show's characters are pretty messed up whether it be in their backstory, personality, or both. Turk is probably the most normal and well-adjusted of the lot.
He has a couple of episodes where it's implied that his family is somewhat dysfunctional, although nothing compared to the other characters'.
"Let me share with you a typical Thanksgiving at the Turk household. It starts with my mother yelling at my sister for yelling at my grandmother who's yelling at the television screen, which happens to be the microwave. And then my militant brother Jabari, formerly Bob, gives my father attitude for using the word black, even though he's referring to the turkey, which, by the way, only got burnt because instead of turning the oven off, my bi-polar Aunt Leslie tried to shove her head in it!"
As Carla puts it:
Carla: Me — dead mom. J.D. — dead dad. Elliot — emotionally abusive parents. Dr. Cox — emotionally and physically abusive dead parents which he may have killed; no one's sure.
Heroes is practically made of this. Anyone who doesn't have a tragic past gets a tragic present.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles runs rampant with this. John Connor suffers from post-traumatic stress and the sheer weight of Because Destiny Says So, Sarah Connor has to deal with raising her son through the hardest time of his life, relationship issues, and fighting to save the world without killing anyone, Derek Reese is just plain sociopathic and suffers from enough PTSD for a battalion of Vietnam vets, and don't even get started on the mountain of psychological issues with Cameron....
Prison Break has a metric buttload of this. But then, it's kinda necessary to justify why all these people would be dumb/crazy enough to get caught up in the series' main story arc. Some of the kickers are child rapist and murderer T-Bag, who was sexually abused by his father and forced to memorise the thesaurus, or Mahone, who went insane while chasing a fugitive, got hooked on the meds he used to stay sane, caught and then murdered the fugitive in cold blood and was blackmailed by the villains into becoming their assassin.
This is not counting all the extra crap that gets piled on the characters over the course of the series, like the murder of Mahone's young son, which drives him even further off the deep end.
Revelations made during the series that actually make previous dysfunctions seem even worse, like Michael and Lincoln discovering not one, but both their parents worked for the villains, including their long-dead mother who isn't really dead.
Not one character on House escapes this trope, including most patients of the week. In between learning about the patients' tragic past, we get a look into the lives of the doctors who treat them.
The misanthropic, crippled, drug-addicted House and his fellow Chase have major parental issues. House goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid contact with his parents. The most extreme example of this is when his father dies and he refuses to go to the funeral despite his mother's wishes. He does end up attending but only because Cuddy drugged him so Wilson could get him in his car and escort him there. In the same episode it is revealed that his father is not actually his biological father. House worked this out as kid and didn't talk to his father for a whole summer after he found out.
Chase was left to care for his sister and alcoholic mother after his father abandoned them. His father turns up during the thirteenth episode and bridges start to mend, but little does Chase know that his father is dying of cancer. Chase finds out two months later in the eighth episode of the second season when he gets a phonecall saying his father died of terminal lung cancer. It gets even worse the seasons twenty-second episode in which House deduces that Chase was cut out of his father's will, a fact that is confirmed in Season 3.
Foreman, a former juvenile delinquent, has a mother with Alzheimer's who he can't stand seeing and a fundamentalist Christian father who is anything but supportive.
Cameron married a dying man when she was in her twenties and then fell for his best friend.
When we first meet Wilson he has been divorced two times and his third marriage is on the verge of complete collapse. In Season 1, he proclaims that, "[he's] only got two things that work for me: this job and this stupid, screwed-up friendship [with House]." Before season 2 is over, Wilson finds himself divorced again and homeless. In season 3 his assets get frozen while attempting to keep House out of jail and it's revealed (surprise, surprise) he's suffering from depression. In season 4, his his girlfriend, Amber, dies, and in season 5 it's revealed that his long-lost, homeless brother that is mentioned in Season 1 is also schizophrenic and that he blames himself for him running away. In Season 8, he has terminal cancer.
Cuddy has apparently failed every relationship she's ever tried to make work and angsts about not being able to start a family. In season 5, she adopts a baby, but has emotional issues bonding with her.
House's new fellows have problems too. Thirteen is dying from Huntington's. (Her mom died from it too.) And in season 7 it's revealed she had to euthanize her brother who suffered from the same disease Kutner's parents were killed in a robbery when he was six and in Season 5 he commits suicide, and nobody knows why, not even House can figure it out. Taub cheats on his wife to the point that it ruins their marriage in Season 7, and has financial problems in Season 5.
The whole point of Titus (and the stand-up it was based on) was Christopher's supremely dysfunctional family, especially his manic-depressive schizophrenic mother and his hard-drinking/chronic-marrying/wussy-hating father. "Hey, once you've driven your drunk father to mom's parole hearing, what else is there?"
All the Pushing Daisies regulars have to deal with some scarring stuff, but they tend to take it with a great deal of dignity. Ned, Lily and Vivian are the most messed up, but even they soldier on quite well.
Ned: Watched his mother die. Twice. Accidentally killed his childhood sweetheart's father. Got sent by his neglectful father to a boarding school. Upon solving his first "case", was mistaken for a murderer and sent to jail. When he was ten. Can't touch his girlfriend.
Chuck: Her father died when she was eight. She went to live with her aunts, one of which actually was her biological mother. Upon seeking liberty from her reclusion, got killed in a cruise.
Olive: Grew up as a Lonely Rich Kid. Was once accidentally kidnapped by two thieves who were very kind to her... and got sent to jail by the Snooks unjustly. Kept for years an oath about the murder of her jockey friend.
Emerson: Born Detective trained from infancy in the art of crook-catching by his own mother. Fell in love with - and was promptly swindled by - grifter Lila Robinson, who prevented him from seeing his own daughter for about nine years.
Lily and Vivian: Two quite different siblings who were prevented from pursuing a career in synchronized swimming by their social phobias. Lily fell in love with Vivian's fiance, Charles, and had a child with him. Upon finding out, Vivian was not exactly pleased.
The two main characters of Bones are a woman whose parents disappeared when she was a teen, and a man with an abusive and alcoholic father. Upon learning that Dr. Sweets had been whipped as a child:
Booth: What are we, the island of Misfit Toys?
It was later revealed that Brennan also suffered abuse at the hands of her foster parents
Also, one of the newer interns, Finn Abernathy, had a stepfather so abusive he contemplated killing him...until he read a report on one of Booth and Brennan's investigations and realized that the FBI might easily send them after him.
Alias: There's dysfunctional and then there's the Bristow family. The dysfunctionality certainly extends past the Bristows though. Most of the characters lives are marred by the death and/or betrayal of loved ones. It certainly doesn't help when our heroes are forced to work with the bad guys and double-crossers or the people they thought were dead but actually weren't.
Burn Notice : This seems to be a common trope for spy shows. As Michael notes a bad childhood is a good preparation for a life as a spy. You don't miss home, you don't trust easily and you're used to violence.
ESPN's short-lived Playmakers series featured a football team where seemingly every player had at least one major dysfunction, including drug addiction, marital abusive, steroid abuse, closet homosexuality and inevitable rabid homobphobia, adultery all over the place, a player suffering near-debilitating guilt for having paralyzed an opponent and anything else you could think of to some extent. It's amazing they had time to play any football.
And, as of the end of the Children of Earth miniseries, three of them are dead, one has run away to pick up men in outer-space bars after killing his own grandson and one is...happily married and pregnant with her first (human) child, though feels guilty for feeling so happy.
The West Wing is an unusual case; everyone on the cast has father issues, but very few mommy problems.
Jed Bartlet's father beat him for being smarter and Catholic.
Leo McGarry's father passed on his alcohalism gene before committing suicide.
Sam Seabourne's father is unfaithful to his wife.
Toby Ziegler's father was a convicted felon and member of the Jewish Mafia.
CJ Cregg's father is suffering from Alzheimer's and at times forgets who she is.
Charlie Young's father is conspicuously absent. Charlie's mother was killed in the line of duty.
And finally, Josh's father was actually very supportive of his son and by all accounts a good guy - until he died. Josh gets to substitute daddy issues for a literal dead little sister.
Jack O'Neill: Originally joined the SGC on a suicide mission because he was depressed after his son accidentally shot himself. Has an implied dark past working for Special Ops, but they never go into too much detail, However, whenever he meets someone from his past, he always has issues with them.
Not too much detail, other than noting that he had a parachute accident on the wrong side of the Iran/Iraq border during the First Gulf War, and he had to save himself by walking nine days with a fractured skull and broken leg. Also that he spent four months in an Iraqi prison after being left for dead by his friend, who he never forgave. None of this touches upon the myriad traumas suffered during the series, most notably the episode  Abyss.
Daniel Jackson: Saw his parents die when he was eight. Lived in foster care, failed at every romantic relationship, before joining the SGC because he had nowhere else to go. Stayed behind with his wife on an alien planet for a year before she was kidnapped and taken over by creepy evil aliens. And that's just his backstory.
Sam Carter: Her mother died when she was pretty young, and she and her brother both blamed her father for that. When Sam eventually got over it, her brother never forgave her, and her father was already distant and detached. Add to that the crazy and possibly abusive (ex)fiance, and you've got yourself a walking tragedy.
Almost all the men she's ever been involved with have croaked.
Teal'c: Bent on getting revenge for his father's murder. Also grew up in slavery to an evil guy. (Same evil guy who kidnapped Daniel's wife. He was a really evil guy). Abandoned the love of his life when she joined a temple, and had to leave his wife and son behind when he went off to start a revolution.
Jonas Quinn: Plagued with guilt after standing idly by while watching his predecessor take a lethal dose of radiation. Exiled from his home planet for trying to set things right.
Cameron Mitchell: Cam had to grow up watching his father cope with being a paraplegic, and later during service in the Air Force was the trigger man for a mistargeted air strike that resulted in friendly casualties.
Vala Mal Doran: Host to evil Goa'uld Qetesh, tortured by her own people, abandoned by her father, sold by her mother, innumerable failed marriages, tortured again, gave birth to the Big Bad's Dragon, left on a hostile planet for the better part of a year, spent decades trapped on a ship, and finally entered into a loving and supportive relationship which was immediately retconned. Ouch.
Stargate doesn't delve all that much into the dark sides of the character's pasts, though you know it's there.
Find me a main character on Criminal Minds that doesn't have some damage (this is just the gist, there's a lot more):
Hotch's marriage collapsed, he's been blown up, he's been stabbed, and there's evidence of an abusive childhood.
JJ was attacked by three vicious dogs that had already torn a woman apart, seems to have issues from her small-town childhood, was hit in the head with a shovel by a serial killer that she didn't know was a serial killer, and when JJ was eleven, her older sister commited suicide.
Reid was kidnapped, beaten, and drugged, was held hostage, got anthrax poisoning, had to deal with his schizophrenic mother, and his father left when he was ten.
Rossi lost a childhood friend to a drunk driver, was haunted by a murder involving children that he didn't solve until he joined the team, unintentionally got a friend killed, and unintentionally got a fan killed.
Morgan was a victim of a child molestor and watched his cop father get shot and killed when he was a kid.
Garcia's parents were killed by a drunk driver when she was eighteen and was shot by a man that she had gone on a date with.
Elle was shot in her house, and her cop father was killed when she was a child.
Gideon got a bunch of people killed, including his kinda-girlfriend and one or two coworkers before the series.
Emily has major issues stemming from her childhood as the daughter of a United States Ambassador, had an abortion at 15, and she had the Doyle arc.
Nip/Tuck: Christian Troy's mother was raped by his father; he was then given up for adoption. The adoptive father sexually abused Christian. Sean McNamara's father was abusive towards Sean because he had a cleft lip. Dad left the family when mom secretly paid to have Sean's lip fixed. Sean's ex-wife Julia slept with Christian on the eve of their wedding and became pregnant with Matt. Sean believed that Matt was his son until a DNA test revealed that Christian was his biological father. Julia's mother Erica was emotionally abusive and neglected Julia for all of her life. Sean and Julia's daughter Annie is ignored by both of her parents and eats her hair out of stress. Youngest son Conor has lobster claw hands, Matt married Christian's ex-fiancee, porn star Kimber and had a baby with her. Kimber and Matt got hooked on meth. Matt's done some really crazy shit, but most recently he turned to a life of crime while dressed as a mime and is now in prison, having just killed his prison husband. Liz Cruz seemed to be above all the crazy, but she married Christian at the end of season 5 and divorced in the first episode of season 6. Even Christian's adopted son Wilbur has some dysfunction. His mother Gina met Christian at a sexaholics meeting and his biologial father was part of an orgy that Gina hosted. It looks like Nurse Linda is the only same person at the asylum that is McNamara/Troy.
While the original Law & Order largely avoids this, both SVU and Criminal Intent slid into this trope over the years, to the point where one suspects that the detectives had been read their 'Nielsen Rights': "You have the right to Drama; if you waive this right, anything you don't say can and will be used against you in the Court of Public Opinion. You have the right to a dysfunctional family; if you have no family problems, one will be invented for you...". Prime examples in these series:
Robert Goren is the son of a troubled schizophrenic and a serial rapist. His older brother, a heroin addict, was murdered by an obsessed serial killer.
Olivia Benson is the daughter of an alcoholic who became pregnant with her after being raped.
Alexandra Eames' husband was a police officer who was murdered while on duty. Her father was a detective who was disgraced for corruption.
Elliot Stabler's daughter has the Hollywood Psychology version of bipolar disorder, inherited from Elliot's dangerously unstable mother. Elliot himself has violent tendencies that have gotten him in trouble more than once, and his workaholic obsessions have driven his wife away more than once.
Let's start with McCoy: A lapsed catholic that attributes his legal prowess to having been abused by his father. He can't stop living and dying on every case he has, and has been shown to be willing to bend the law to a very high degree to get a conviction. He also carried through with convicting a priest that confessed to cover for the real criminal (or so McCoy thinks). He's also had affairs with every female ADA he's had up through Kincaid, and the only reason he stopped is because she dies. It really says something that there's more to be listed (that are considered to be enough in themselves to list a character dysfunctional), but they're mild compared to the rest. He's dysfunctional enough for the entire cast, but they have their own stuff they're dealing with.
Ah, Detective Briscoe, where to begin with you? Well, your daughters hate you. In fact, one of those daughters is a meth addict who's killed after testifying against a dealer. You're a recovering alcoholic, and one slip causes the current ADA, Kincaid, to drive you home. While she's driving you home, you confess to her that you wish she was your daughter. Five seconds later, the car is struck by a drunk driver and she dies. You blame yourself. You were also accused by your partner and your boss of falsifying a confession, based solely on the fact that the criminal said he didn't confess.
Detective Curtis' wife is dying more recently, has died of MS, which is why he leaves the force. He thinks that his wife's MS is a result of his cheating on her, and is later accused of falsifying evidence to help a woman he is accused of sleeping with.
DA Schiff has many friends in high places. They're all absurdly corrupt. He also pulled the plug on his wife after she suffered a stroke.
ADA Carmicheal was raped in law school, and a very good friend of hers (a fellow ADA) gets murdered by mobsters she is helping to convict.
Lieutenant Van Buren injured a mugger and killed his partner... who turned out to be a mentally retarded teenager. Her title is grounds for dysfunction as well, as it's discovered that the case that caused her to be promoted was based on evidence that a forensic scientist falsified. More recently, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer as a result of a STD that she received because her husband had been cheating on her.
Admittedly, most of L&O tends to focus on the cases, rather than the characters, but nearly any time part of a character's backstory is revealed, it's something really bad.
In ER, a lot of the patients are this and most of the doctors/nurses too.
Sam came from a family of alcoholics and druggies and she was pregnant at fifteen.
Abby's father left when she was very young and both her mother and brother have bipolar disease, which caused difficulties on Abby, as she had to raise her brother on her own.
Pratt's father left him and his mother when he was very young. Turns out his father tried to get back with them, but Pratt's mother kept blocking him out. Had a stepbrother mentally handicapped after receiving a gunshot to the head.
Lewis' parents are extremely hard to talk to and are never around. Her older sister has several problems with drugs, alcohol and men.
Carter is distant with his mother and she became colder towards him after the death of his brother. His grandfather is disappointed in Carter's career choice.
Corday has a strained relationship with her mother, who apparently didn't spend a lot of time with her.
Mark Greene has a strained relationship with his father, who he purposely tries to upset and does the opposite of what his father wants.
Like father, like daughter. This troper always found it sad (if not ironic) that Rachel would be to Mark what Mark was to his father.
Kovac saw his wife and children being murdered in Croatia
No one from Oz escapes this trope, not even the people who aren't prisoners.
Rescue Me is a show about some seriously flawed individuals.
Everyone in Mad Men. Or at least, all of the characters who are married.
The SRU team in Flashpoint has varying degrees of this.
Greg Parker was divorced from his wife because of his problems with alcoholism and hadn't seen his estranged son in years. And that's not mentioning how he survived a hard life under his strict father by learning to negotiate.
Ed Lane had been having problems with his relationship with his wife and son, being more attached to his job than them.
Sam Braddock revealed in "Acceptable Risk" that he saw his younger sister being hit by a car and killed instantly when he was nine years old.
Kevin "Wordy" Wordsmith appears to be the most normal of the team, Happily Married and loving to his three daughters.
Let's face it, every single character on Blake's 7 has SERIOUS issues. In the original crew alone, we have the delusional revolutionist, the violent smuggler, the guerilla soldier, the Deadpan Snarker who verges on psychopathic, the compulsive thief (who's also an alcoholic and a coward), the computer who is obviously hiding something from the crew, and the Gentle Giant who's only a Gentle Giant because he had a limiter put in his head to stop him from murdering anyone else. For bonus points, it's heavily implied that they ALL have tragic pasts. This crew is just one big happy family...
Shirley's divorced, and her genuine kindness and sweetness duel with some serious rage issues.
Abed's parents are divorced, and his relationship with his dad had suffered because of it. He also has an Ambiguous Disorder which on occasion impedes his ability to function normally.
Annie's past involves bad self-esteem, many many pills and her family disowning her.
Troy threw away a bright athletic career. He is also highly insecure about his level of intelligence.
Pierce has been divorced 7 times and is... not the most social chap in the world. (Read: a lonely inept old man desperate to be taken seriously). He also develops an addiction to painkillers in season 2.
"This is a show about broken people. All of them are quite alone, some involuntarily, some by their own hand, some without realizing it, but none of them come to the study room table with the emotional advantages held by that mythical creature known as ‘a normal person.’ There are no normal people, there are just different kinds of weird, all of it is human and all humanity is better than everything inhuman."
Leverage features this for most of the main characters:
No one actually knows who Sophie really is, as she is a grifter who is constantly living in new identities.
As the only member of the team to have physically hurt people in the past, Eliot is The Atoner and was probably abused as a child.
Parker is the most broken of the main cast. She grew up in the foster care system without ever knowing her family, apart from her brother who died at a young age. After being caught for car theft when she was 12, she trained under the greatest thief in the world as a teenager who kept her away from his real family. To top it off, Word of God indicates that she also has Asperger Syndrome, meaning that she never really fits in in social situations. She also may have killed her last foster parents (the episode doesn't show if they were inside their house when she blew it up), but it's clear that the father in that household was abusive.
Hardison is the only member of the main cast that seems to be relatively normal as the Playful Hacker. Like Parker, he was raised in the foster system, but his "Nana" was good to him and he speaks fondly of her. Hardison lampshades the contrast between his upbringing and Parker's in one episode.
Gibbs lost his wife and daughter in the early nineties and has had three divorces since. He and his father don't get along, and he avoids going home at all costs.
Tony lost his mother at a young age. His father has been married several times since, and up until season seven, they appear to have been estranged.
Ziva lost her younger sister as a teenager. Her father raised her to be an assassin, ordered her to kill her half-brother, left her to die in Somalia, and tried to pin a murder on her. Her boyfriend also turned out to be a terrorist.
McGee can't seem to sustain a relationship to save his life, but whether this is due to his relationship abilities or just the women he chooses is kind of up for grabs. They've also given him Daddy issues as of Season 9.
Abby discovers she's been adopted and her (dead) parents never told her. She, and the team in general, can't have functional out-of-work friendships or romantic relationships, and tends to seek a subsitute family in their coworkers. Congratulations, NCIS writers. You've officially given the field team, and now Abby too, issues with their parents.
After her father's suicide, Jenny Shepard had a decade-long obsession with the arms dealer she suspected of killing him.
No-one in "The Robots of Death" is a normal or even functional person. The Doctor and Leela are the sanest people in the setting, and that says a lot (it's Leela's first time off her miserable and religiously oppressive planet, and the Doctor's a Mad Hatter who likes to pick on her for fun). Uvanov bullies Zilda out of sexual attraction and a sense of working class bitterness, and Zilda covers up for her feelings of inadequacy about her poverty with upper-class snobbery and contempt. Poul is a bitter and emotionally-repressed spy who uses sarcasm to hide his feelings and eventually succumbs to a Phobia meltdown. Borg is a bullying Jerkass who sadistically picks on everyone around him for fun, up to and including making death threats, and insists he's done nothing wrong when called on it. Chub is so much of a privileged snob that his reaction to a robot trying to kill him is anger that it would dare touch him. Dask is a smug, tedious knowitall in love with the sound of his own voice and with a really, really weird fondness for robots.
"The Horror of Fang Rock" makes everyone in the cast either blatantly dysfunctional or hiding some seriously dark secrets, as part of painting the era of the setting as a Crapsaccharine World. Everyone has some glaring complex, usually regarding sexism and classism.
The relaunch often veers towards this. It was more overt during the tenure of the first producer, Russell T Davies, but Steven Moffat has also made reference to it.
The Doctor is the sole surviving member of his race, and so he has pretty obvious survivor guilt and a self-destructive streak when left to his own devices. Later on we find out that he was directly responsible for the death of his own people, for the greater good of the rest of the universe. His guilt and self-hatred over this resulted in him erasing all evidence of the existence of the incarnation who did it he could find. "The Doctor's Wife" had him obsessively chasing down clues that suggested another Time Lord might have survived because he wanted forgiveness. "Let's Kill Hitler" showed him activating a voice interface for the TARDIS so he could give it verbal commands and when it generated a hologram of himself as the interface he immediately changed it to "someone I like" instead. And while it might seem like the Doctor discovering he'd actually saved his people, rather than killed them, in "The Day of the Doctor" would clear up some of his baggage, it actually just makes him painfully aware of all the other terrible experiences the incarnation he erased went through. Not to mention that having saved them, they promptly turn around and put him through his own personal Hell for four and a half billion years.
He also feels extreme amounts of guilt for the irrevocable way he changes the lives of his companions, and not always for the better. The massive bind he's stuck in over even having companions makes this worse - if he doesn't have someone to ground him, his morality starts eroding, which in the worst case can end up threatening the universe. If he does have someone, however, he knows that one way or another, whether thanks to his dangerous life or his extremely long lifespan, he's going to end up losing them and have to deal with the pain that brings. And he's lost a lot of people by now.
The Doctor's companions often have less-than-ideal backgrounds too, and their time with the Doctor in many ways leaves them more screwed up than they were before they met him. It's hinted at in some of the Expanded Universe books but pretty much stated outright in the new series that this is because the Doctor has a habit of turning people into "living weapons" who are unable to return to a quiet ordinary life after leaving him and are then primed to catalyse important events and fight crime, evil and injustice instead.
Season 8 of the new series slowly reveals that Clara is a batshit insane Nightmare Fetishist with a literal addiction to the companion lifestyle who continually ends up doing terrible things. Her boyfriend Danny has mountains of PTSD from shooting a child when he was a soldier. The Doctor brings along a good chunk of his previous baggage plus a difficult adjustment to a new body and the new morals and personality problems that came with it. Oneshot companion Courtney is a 'disruptive influence' at school trapped with parents and teachers who don't care. "In the Forest of the Night" features a school trip from the 'gifted and talented' pupils which is explained by Clara to be a euphemism for the hopeless cases. And Missy's just bonkers.
The entire cast of Weeds are constantly screwing themselves and each other over, typically in an attempt to escape the consequences of completely different problems, which they usually brought upon themselves in the first place.
Pick any of the CSI series, and you'll find this trope all over the place. I don't think there's a single character that hasn't had a whole string of bad things happen between their backstory and their time onscreen.
The Harpers of My Family are a pretty messed-up bunch. Ben is a seriously emotionally distant, snarky and abrasive parent; Susan is a Control Freak of the first order; Janey is a narcissistic and shallow Dumb Blonde; Michael is the Only Sane Man; and Nick is...Nick. Their relatives and friends tend to be equally messed up.
House of Anubis: Everyone is at least a little screwed up, either with family issues and deep emotional problems, or particularly difficult experiences over the course of the series. Notable examples include:
Jerome Clarke, whose mother has been implied not to care for him or his little sister Poppy, and whose father had disappeared when he was a kid. It then turns out that his father is actually in jail for theft, which doesn't make things any easier. Confronting this and building a bond with his father is a major part of his season 2 Character Development. He also had some nasty experiences with Rufus Zeno in the first seasons, nearly getting very hurt or killed each time.
Joy Mercer, who was kidnapped by her father and kept locked away with no contact with the outside world, all just because she was believed to be The Chosen One. Upon returning in the next season, she learned Fabian, who she had a major crush on, had started dating Nina who Joy herself had never really met until this season. In season 3, she undergoes a big personality change and tries to become a happier person, but finds herself having to help Mara get revenge on Jerome for cheating on her by pretending to like him, and ends up Becoming the Mask, which left her heartbroken and alone after Jerome dumped her and Mara found out the truth.
Patricia is implied to be The Unfavorite to her twin, Piper, and has never really had much of a break from struggling and pain in any of the three seasons. She had several break downs in the first season as a result of her desperate and lonely quest to save Joy, and then went through a lot just to feel comfortable dating Eddie only to break up with him out of fear of relationships during the summer.
Eddie was abandoned for years without any contact by his father, Mr. Sweet. When he first came to the House, he was angry and distant and rejected Mr. Sweet as a father. Soon he agreed to try and mend their relationship, just to be betrayed and manipulated left and right in season 3 by Mr. Sweet, which left him completely shattered and confused.
Then there's KT, who was implied to have no parents, leaving her raised by her grandfather. However, he died just before she came to Anubis House, only leaving her with a mysterious key and a mission to "stop a great evil". She then discovers she is in fact the illegitimate great granddaughter of Robert Frobisher-Smythe, which would be cool, if it weren't for the fact that he was the Big Bad of the season...
Felton is an alcoholic and a suspected racist in a bad marriage and whose increasing incompetency eventually gets him fired And upon eventually being rehired to work in the undercover narcotics division, ends up being brutally murdered after his cover is blown.
Bolander is world-weary, has a troubled marriage and is saddled with a partner he barely tolerates.
Crosetti in spite of being devoted to his daughter and a devout Catholic, is mentally unstable and a compulsive gambler, both of which drive him to kill himself, and due to this, could not receive a proper police ceremony/burial.
Howard, in addition to originally being the only woman, cannot keep a man and is in love with her partner who’s too damaged for her own good.
Russert struggles to raise her daughter as a widow and finds herself in damaging relationships.
Lewis was initially decent, but over time devolved into a narcissisticJerk Ass who quickly marries and divorces his wife, shuns his mentally ill brother due to the burden he was to the family and betrayed all three of his partners.
Gee was and continues to be oppressed by racist jerkasses and corrupt bosses and has never gotten over his wife’s death and also struggles to find love because of colorism, leading him to bitterness, which has affected his relationship with his children, especially his only son, Mike Giardello, who is pretty bitter himself and has an attiutude where he cannot see or take in anything good in his life, including becoming a father.
Cox’s father was murdered in a hit-and-run accident, she gets involved in relationships with both Kellerman and Bayliss which end badly and she’s surrounded by corrupt superiors who eventually drive her to quit her job.
Gharty is a coward and a racist who very few people in the squad trust.
Sheppard proved herself to be all looks and no skill by almost getting her partner killed through her own incomptency and ended up alienating nearly everyone on the squad who were either angry with or embarrassed by her.
Just about every major character in the Scottish/Canadian kids' show Shoebox Zoo had this trope. The heroine is an angst-ridden eleven-year old who lost her mother to cancer and then had the fate of the world dumped on her shoulders, the four living toys suffer from A Fate Worse Than Death for 1100 years, one of whom, Wolfgang, hates his father for denying him his rightful heritage and then turning him into a toy for trying to save him from his own dark magic, Michael Scot's servant McTaggart was tortured and then made immortal as punishment for stealing his spellbook, which Wolfgang also tried to dispose of, and the bad guy Toledo is an Artificial Human made by Michael, abused, and turned evil to prove his worth.
Oliver: Witnessed his father kill himself, trapped on a hellish island for five years, forced to watch his mentor receive a fatal Boom, Headshot, had to throw away all his previous morals to survive, his island girlfriend and second mentor killed by Ivo For the Evulz, targeted by Slade after finding out he inadvertently caused Shado's death, then in present day, his girlfriend is [non-fatally] shot, he fails to stop the Undertaking, which kills Tommy, and then, Slade turns out to be Not Quite Dead. We can now add in being killed by Ra's Al-Ghul and being given a Sadistic Choice to either take over the League of Assassins or have them turn the entire city against him.
Diggle: His sense of morality was shaken after fatally shooting a child soldier in Afghanistan, his brother was killed by Deadshot, he divorced Lyla after things went to crap, and his best friend from the military turns out to be evil. Of course, it's getting better for Diggle now that he's not only had a daughter with Lyla, but got remarried to her.
Laurel: Sister is supposedly killed in a boat crash which she was only on because she was tapping Oliver, Oliver is revealed to be alive, but Sara isn't, she loses Tommy to the Undertaking, and she currently struggles with alcoholism and painkiller addiction. We can add dead sister back to the list and with her struggling to pick up her place as a hero of the city.
Quentin: Daughter killed in boat crash, turned to alcoholism to cope, divorced his wife because of differences as a result of Sara's death, and he slowly drives away Laurel with his desire to catch Green Arrow.
Akashi is still dealing with seeing his old friends die in front of him.
Masumi watched his comrades be killed by Yaiba when he was just a kid.
Souta carries the guilt of hurting people back in his spy days.
Natsuki couldn't remember her past and then learns she is the sole survivor and princess of an ancient civilization.
Eiji is the son of a demon hunter and a demon and his learning this trigger his demon blood for the first time preventing him from saving his father.
The cast of Please Like Me. Josh, Tom, and Claire all deal with issues of co-dependency, low self-esteem, and difficulties keeping relationships; Josh's dad Alan can't seem to let go of his feelings for his ex-wife despite having a girlfriend (whose relationship with him is also strenuous); and Josh's mother Rose, Arnold, Hannah, and Ginger are all mentally ill and spend much of the second season in the mental hospital.