Monday, November 17, 2008

It Spun In...Then Faded Away

Shocking TV series character deaths.

I don't know why I've been thinking about this lately, but I have. Probably has something to do with the recent season premieres of CSI: Vegas or CSI: Miami, both promoting the hell out of themselves as to whether Horatio or Warrick or whoever will ad even clamouring: "This week, a cast member will die!"


In the world of serialized episodic dramatic television, I'm not sure if anything carries more weight than the 'out of left field, WTF??!!' death of a lead character. But in these days of stand-alone episodic storytelling, those 'impact moments' are few and far between.

I recollect a few that really stood out, starting of course with Mash. Colonel Blake received his discharge, flew off, and then Radar entered the OR at the end of the episode to announce the plane had gone down. It spun in. No survivors. I remember just staring at the television in disbelief.

Other memorable TV series character deaths include Ms. Calendar getting her neck snapped by evil Angel on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I sat right up out of bed when that happened, and then had to endure the remaining moments of the episode watching Giles find his slain love...ughh - total shocker.

Or the great reversal/shocker on ER of Carter getting stabbed by the psychotic patient...and we think he's going down for good when he collapses to the floor...and then from his prone position he sees his colleague and love interest Lucy already lying on the floor on the other side of the room...bleeding out. He survived...she didn't. Gak.

And Mark Harmon's character on The West Wing getting shot while trying to foil a robbery was another shocker...especially since it happened right after the show gave finally TJ a love interest in Harmon.

Good TV giveth, and then it taketh away.

Which brings me to my most memorable shocking TV character death...the one that caught me completely off guard...and taught me the power of TV drama that can only come from watching every week, falling in love with the characters, and completely buying into the world of the show.

thirtysomething. 1991. Season 4 I think. Nancy has been fighting cancer. Everyone is gathered at the hospital, anxiously waiting for her latest test results. The entire focus of the episode, in fact a lot of the season, had been on her fight, and thus it was all I the viewer was thinking about. And then the results come back...and she's clean, cancer-free. And there is rejoicing, and dancing, and tears of joy. And Michael is trying to call Gary to let him know the good news...and getting no answer...and, well... watch for yourself:

That moment slayed me. I felt like I'd been punched soooo hard in the gut (Good NY Times article HERE about decision to kill off Gary). And I'll admit I cried, like a little gurl, when Michael had to identify the body. It showed me all that can be great about serialized episodic television drama, even though it shook me to my very core.

And the kicker was they didn't end the episode with the death, but bombed you with it halfway you had to endure all the other characters reacting to the news. I still get shivers remembering it.

But I don't know if you can have moments like that in today's television universe. First of all, it was before Internet spoilers....back when a show was just allowed to unfold and evolve and play out. And when people watched week after week because it was good and entertaining, not because ads screamed at them all week to: "Watch this episode of 'thirtysomething' because SOMEONE DIES!! (although in this case they might have actually done that, because everyone watching was expecting or would've expected Nancy to die. But anyway...)

Now I'm not disputing some cable and premium pay series like The Sheild or Six Feet Under or The Sopranos have been able to achieve some of those WTF death moments, but we're talking more major network TV-land here...series that everyone was watching, and thus seemed to impact in a much larger, collective consciousness stun-gun kinda way.

But the reality of today's TV drama landscape is that the networks don't really seem to want you to get so emotionally engaged. You know, with the casts of all the Law & Order's able to live, die, come, and go more or less as they please. And the CSI's and Criminal Minds and Without A Trace's casts being soooooo interchangeable. And storylines designed to be more self-contained and not arcing over many episodes. And the tendancy to advertise a characters demise rather than let it surprise and shock and move the viewers or fans...let's face it, these memorable 'shocking' impact moments feel like pretty much a thing of the past.

But do viewers even miss them? Do they even care? Maybe not. Which is sad. So sad. Such a sad sad situation...


Diane Kristine said...

Do you think any of the Lost deaths had that impact? I watched the first 2 seasons on DVD after I'd seen too many headlines that ruined the major deaths, so they didn't for me, but I don't know how they affected people who were watching in "real time."

wcdixon said...

We'd have to ask a hardcore 'Lost' fan, Diane. I only watched the first 3 seasons on DVD this past year, and like you kinda knew or had inkling of 'deaths' already from before.

jimhenshaw said...

I think you're circling in on one of the key reasons fewer people are watching television.

The promotion of "death" episodes as well as episodes where you're told somebody will break-up, get bad news, lose their job etc robs the viewer of the full experience of the moment.

Instead of being able to discover and react in their own individual ways, they're either telegraphed the outcome and the expected emotions or offered a list of possible scenarios they can pre-imagine.

So the viewer has time to think "Do I really want to feel that way?" or with the shock and/or surprise out of the way is left with only the mechanics of "how it happens".

And since that's not as much fun -- they start to wonder if they should even bother watching...

wcdixon said...

Jimmy, I'm soooo good at 'circling'. Nailed it? Not so much. But circling around it...I be awesome.

Callaghan said...

"And it's getting more and more absurd."

morjana said...

I find I enjoy tv shows more when I don't know in advance everything about the episode before it airs -- which is probably why I've only maintained an online interest in one series -- Stargate SG-1 -- and then it's spin-off, Stargate Atlantis, and now Amanda Tapping's, 'Sanctuary,' by maintaining a Yahoo discussion group for spoilers.

But I love NCIS, Medium, Fringe, House, Bones, Chuck, The Mentalist (and some other series) -- and I am very cautious about what I read online about theses shows. I don't want to read spoilers, however, some interviews and reviews are okay.

But, yes, the "death" announcements are being overused now in promoting an episode, especially when the "death" turns out to be: 1) a ruse (CSI: Miami); 2) a minor character and/or nemesis (Stargate Atlantis, etc.); 3) a really, really stupid idea (*cough* Carson Beckett on Stargate Atlantis).

I too remember crying when Col. Blake died on "MASH," but I also remember when Dan Blocker died at the end of one season of Bonanza, and the season premiere was about Ben and Little Joe recovering from the death of Hoss. Oh, wow. It was powerful television, especially when Ben went to Hoss' room, and looked at a photo of his son Hoss.

I think in the "old days" -- back in the 50's and 60's, when a tv season meant 30+ episodes per season, TPTB thought about long term writing, and emphasized substance and quality over the "big bang" effect.

These days, with seasons of 13 episodes (or less), it's short term writing, more bang than substance, less quality, and ultimately, less satisfaction and viewer loyalty.

IMHO, of course.

DMc said...

You've got a combo plate solution here.

First, the spoiler culture and the internet has guaranteed that you have to go through such a complicated stew of mental gymnastics to avoid spoilers that most of us give up.

Never mind plot points -- we all know months in advance who's appearing in a guest role and what they'll be playing.

When it comes to deaths, the leak takes away surprise.

But also, so does the fact that what used to be unheard of: a series lead or important cast member dying, is commonplace.

When Amanda Donohue stepped into an elevator shaft or Gary on Thirtysomething died offscreen -- it was truly shocking.

Today, not so much.

Finally to answer your question, the only LOST death that had impact for me was Mr. Eko -- because it DID seem to come out of nowhere, and I didn't know it was coming.

Contrast that with the death of Christopher on the Sopranos, which was surprising -- but you knew was coming. It just didn't happen any way like you think it would. Which in its own way was very surprising.

Frank "Dolly" Dillon said...

you can still get away with a surprise death on Canadian TV because many of our broadcasters don't even let the audience know when the show is ON, much less what's about.

Good Dog said...

Oh great, bring up Gary Shepherd’s death. I’ve only recently got over that. Thanks, Will.

Mr McGrath nails it with the spoiler culture on the internet ruining surprises. By the time we get some shows over here we know all about it and so the shock factor is gone. Obviously that’s a great shame.

Some still slip through the net, although maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention. There have been some shocking deaths throughout The Wire and even The Sopranos, like Christopher’s death and Adriana’s. That said, those shows also surprised be by having characters that actually made it. I guess that’s because in HBO dramas like that, pretty much all bets are off from the start.

That was also the case in the earlier MTM (and later Bochco) shows. There were deaths in the likes of Hill Street Blues and St Elsewhere that were real sit-up/WTF? moments. Although, wasn’t it Diana Muldaur’s Rosalind Shays that went down the elevator shaft in LA Law, not Ms Donahue.

You know, I remember that MASH episode as well and it just seemed wrong, as if the line had been said by mistake. Okay, the subject matter was grave but this was still a sitcom and things like that weren’t supposed to happen to characters we had grown to love.

That said, one thing to mention is that here in the UK MASH was never broadcast with a laugh track so maybe it wasn’t such a punch to the heart as in the US/Canada.

The deaths in Lost I’ve never found that big a deal. When the brother and sister got offed in the earlier seasons, because they were annoying characters, I was happy to see them go. Then again, Lost - at least to me – is the kind of show that concentrates more on the increasingly bizarre plot rather than the characters. Since that means the characters are more like chess pieces being moved around the board, when one gets taken out you shrug and get on with it.

So it’s the more character-centred shows that really get me. Especially because then how the death affects the “surviving” characters in the following episodes becomes as important as the death.

Going back to Gary in thirtysomething, that was a real killer because of how it messed up Michael and Melissa. Didn’t they think Gary was cycling when he was killed and instead it turned out he was driving the car Melissa had bought him (really a present for the baby)? And of course Melissa and Gary had recently had an argument. So she got an emotional kicking in the aftermath.

Before I forget, Kate getting shot dead at the end of the second year of NCIS was a surprise for me, especially since you expect leads to be contracted for quite a few more years. The first couple episodes of the third season had nice sequences with the other characters dealing with her death.

wcdixon said...

GD writes a longer comment than my post...'shaming' me once again.

And 'Frank' continue to crack me up, even though I was left wondering 'who is the surprise for then?' if no one knows it's on or what it's about.

Your Girl Jimmy said...

Will, I'm soo happy that you mentioned Mrs. Calendar's death in Buffy. As a serious Buffy fan that was one death that really shocked and affected me (however lame that may seem). Even more so than Joice or Tara's deaths. To this day, after watching the entire season of Buffy probably 3 or 4 times I still get shivers from that kill. I think it affected me so much because it was bad Angel at his absolute worst. Bad Angel was always about hunger and intimidation and yet when he kills Calendar he quickly, and unapologetically, snaps her neck. He doesn't bite her neck, or threaten to bite or turn her, he doesn't show off his power (like he usually liked to do), instead he just snaps her neck. So final. And so simple. The kill did go along with Angel's cool demeanor, but didn't include the usual puffing up of his chest. This kill seemed to be out of pure hate and anger which is different because Angel seemed to usually kill to feel or appear powerful and accomplished.

Just a quick note about the episode "The body" wherein Joice is found dead and we watch the fallout from that. It's gut wrenching. It makes me nauseas just thinking about it. The whole episode was done with no diegetic or non-digetic music with the only music heard faintly during a flashback (and a brief instance of wind chimes). That episode was REAL and scary. It also looked at death and the separation we maybe should have (but don't, as viewers of a television show about killing monsters and mysterious monster related deaths).

Your Girl Jimmy said...

Also, if a surprise happens on Canadian TV and on one's watching, does it even exist?

Chew on that one for a while.

Frank "Dolly" Dillon said...

there comes a point in time that you realize you are really only writing for the crew