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 live...one 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 writing...it 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 through...so 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...