Character Deaths on TV

Please note this might include possible spoilers for shows that you haven’t seen before–both past and present shows.

The most recent episode of The Vampire Diaries has really caused a lot of chat around the web about the freshman series. And honestly, who can blame them. To kill of a character that was in the prime of a storyline takes guts. And apparently executive producer Kevin Williamson has them.

In a recent interview about the show, Williamson said the following:

No one’s safe on this show. We’ve reached the point when we’re watching TV that there’s no jeopardy, no risk, no stakes, when we know our lead characters aren’t going to be killed. Well, that’s not true on this show. I’m starting with the supporting characters and I’m working my way in. Everyone’s going to die on this show. This is a show where characters you love may die, and it’ll be unexpected and shocking, so get ready for it. It’s as simple as that. And [Vicki] was the first casualty.

I love it. What balls! And honestly, I feel like that’s the failure of so many shows: the fact that they’re afraid to do anything to lead characters.

It’s not that I’m a fan of aimless death of characters. Without a purpose, there’s no reason to do it. Or, on the other hand, if it’s just a publicity stunt, that’s a waste of a viewer’s time (and usually, not as big as you’d think).

From someone who’s a fan of Joss Whedon’s work, there’s clearly a bias on my end toward character death. He knew how to do it, when to do it, and how to do it with the most emotion involved possible. Taking the death of Tara McClay alone–it was a heartbreaking moment that really turned the character of Willow. Right as we were growing more and more attached to Tara overall.

And then there was Doyle from Angel, another risky move by a freshman series. But without his death, who’s to say that Cordelia’s story would have progressed in the way it did. No visions? Plus, Whedon took the extra risk: to kill off a new character–one who’s name was recognizable from Roseanne fame–only a few episodes in. Sound familiar, Vampire Diaries?

I feel like that’s even more of the struggle. It’s one thing to kill someone off, but what if they’re someone that people love? Well, that just makes that much more of an impact.

No, I mean the actor? What if people love the actor?

Welcome to Heroes. Heroes made a great move by creating an ensemble cast filled with new names and famous ones. The problem is, they won’t get rid of any of them. Sure, there’s a death this year, and there have been before. But no one ever leaves. Now the show is more unruly than ever before!

The problem is, some people think a show is quality because of its actors. In some sense, it is. But there are also directors, writers, producers–and entire treasure trove of people that come together to watch a show. Sure, actors might bring a viewer in, but substance keeps them watching. I didn’t stop watching Joan of Arcadia because they killed off Judith. I didn’t stop watching Tru Calling because they killed off Luc. I kept watching because I knew something must be coming that made that death worth it.

And House? Having a doctor commit suicide when you didn’t even know something was wrong gave the show the turning point it needed to get House as a character out of his rut and developing as a person all over again.

So yes, I’m a fan of character deaths, and I adore that Vampire Diaries has jumped in with both feet, knowing that they’ll risk it all. They’ll risk characters lives. It’s a dark show. They should! And Williamson has a point: If you can’t be scared for the people you care about, how can you be invested in a show like this? Something has to be at stake.

Pardon the pun.

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10 thoughts on “Character Deaths on TV

  1. This is a good point. Lots of shows these days don’t take serious risks by killing off major characters. As much as I liked Battlestar Galactica, and as dark as it was, the generally stuck to killing off mostly minor characters in a shocking manner. None of the deaths were ever really hugely shocking. It’ll be interesting to see if this show really will be different.

  2. I’m less familiar with Battlestar, but I do know a few things that happened in the final season. While there’s a lot more you can do when you’re in your final season and not your first (after all, you don’t have three seasons later when you go, “Crap, that character’s gone!”), they did kill off a few people you weren’t expecting.

  3. Ha, I can’t help but laugh at myself as I blatantly skimmed over the Spoiler alert and then proceeded to stumble over “I didn’t stop watching Joan of Arcadia when they killed off – What? woahhhhh -….I didn’t stop watching Tru Calling when they killed off – WHAT? wooahhhhh –

    I agree that writer’s reluctance to killing off characters undermines the show’s sincerity. How can you make any truly suspenseful episode when your characters are immortal? Although, I give it to SVU for last year’s finale. Did not see that coming at all.

    I keep waiting for the Whedon boot to drop and crush a character on Dollhouse. Unfortunately for my attachment issues Joss seems to lack the qualms of other writers in axing main characters.

  4. Well, I think you’ll still enjoy Tru Calling and Joan of Arcadia, whether you know that little tidbit or not. :-) Hmm, now I want to go watch them.

    I keep waiting for Dollhouse, too. Though, I got slammed in comments last year because I suggested they might kill off Whiskey on the first season finale. Boy was I wrong.

  5. To its credit, Dollhouse did eliminate two characters last season that appeared as if they were going to be regulars early on. Sierra’s original handler was killed by November, and Dominick, while not actually dead, was banished to the attic. You have to remember though, that while Whedon is known for memorable character deaths, he doesn’t go around whacking characters every season a show is on the air.

  6. Well, I would say Dominic was set up to be a regular, but then again, I still don’t know if we could really consider him a “dead” character, since he could be brought back at any time. As for Sierra’s handler, he had a smaller role than Jenny Calendar in Buffy, so that one didn’t really shock me all that much–except for the “how” factor.

    The thing that Whedon is successful at is that generally we don’t see the death coming (with the exception of Anya, really, since she kinda had a farewell speech in the episode before). We haven’t had that moment in Dollhouse yet, which was the flaw in my thinking. If you’re predicting it, you’re probably wrong.

  7. Yeah, I’d say handler Hearn was barely a recurring — I think he showed up once before his demise in “Man on the Street.” Maybe twice? I agree that Dominic was set up as a regular, though. Death or not, it was certainly shocking!

    Assuming that the events of “Epitaph One” will happen, we know Dominic’s coming back in the flesh at least once (eventually). And certainly the character can be imprinted onto an active any time they need him.

    Speaking of which, what do you think “Epitaph One” does to the survival chances of Dollhouse regulars? It does seem to suggest that most of the regular cast aren’t going anywhere any time soon. I think only Madeleine isn’t in it at all, and I think Boyd’s only in one bit early on.

    Other shows… Torchwood has had some startling character deaths, but they’ve gone so far that they’ve kind of hamstrung the show. (Hard to see where they’ll go from here, if in fact the show continues.) The mutual demise of Owen and Tosh was very moving, though Owen’s half-season in undead limbo that preceded it was really a liability.

    And my nomination for stupidest character death: Trip Tucker in the Enterprise finale, killed while doing something he managed easily a dozen times before. Sigh.

  8. Well, something must happen to Madelaine/November because they talk about it very vaguely off an on. They keep saying “remember what happened to November” or something to that degree. Sure, it could be a new doll named November, but it’s something.

    If we’re going stupidest character death…hmmm…I have to think but I’m sure I want to join in on that one.

    Oh, here’s a shocking death, all because Gil Bellows wanted to leave Ally Mcbeal: Billy’s character. Drops dead in the courtroom the episode after we find out he has a brain tumor. Now that was shocking. But that was just to get him off the show.

  9. Pingback: The Vampire Diaries: The Fury « Raked

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