Spoiler warning: Because of the nature of this topic, there are spoilers to a few current TV shows and comic books below. If you’re like me, I never watch the show on the night it premieres. Rather, I watch it later on, which makes avoiding spoilers difficult, especially when going online.
Is it me, or is there a lot of dying going on in TV shows lately?
After watching the season finale (or, if you’re in Britain, the Christmas episode) of “Downton Abbey” recently, I, amid so many other viewers, was shocked to witness the death of Matthew Crawley, the most likable character on the show and heir to the Downton estate, who was killed in a car crash shortly after his wife, Lady Mary, had just delivered their baby, the couple’s first. And that was the second major death this season, occurring only a few episodes after the death of the youngest Crawley sister, Lady Sybil, while delivering her baby. What is it about babies and death on this show?
And death is a regular occurrence on “The Walking Dead,” which is really no surprise, seeing as how zombies and death go together like bacon and cheese on a burger. It follows the same “nobody is safe” formula that the show “Lost” used, where major characters were never above getting the ax; it was only a matter of time. This season, Lori, T-Dog, Oscar and, most recently, Axel have all died. And last season, both Shane and Dale were killed off, among others.
And let’s not forget the deaths of Lexie Grey on “Grey’s Anatomy” (2012), Jimmy Darmody on “Boardwalk Empire” (2011) and Eddard Stark on “Game of Thrones” (2011). There’s also Charlie Harper’s violent death on the sitcom “Two and a Half Men” (2012)
That’s 11 deaths in the last two years, at least. And I know there are plenty more.
Of course, death is nothing new in the world of TV, as shows have been killing off characters, major and minor, for years, usually for ratings or for contract reasons. But death never seemed to be so in vogue as it is now.
According to the website Mental Floss, the first show to deal with a major character’s death was “Bonanza.” But it wasn’t because the actor’s contract was up or an effort to try to improve ratings. It was because the actor himself died.
Dan Blocker played Hoss Cartwright for 13 seasons before dying unexpectedly at the age of 43 of a pulmonary embolism following a routine gallbladder surgery in 1972. The show’s producers decided that his character would be killed in an accident in the episode “Forever.” “Bonanza” producer Richard Collins explained, “Just as we personally suffered a loss, so the audience suffered one, too.”
Like comic books, soap operas began to make killing off their major characters and then bringing them back to life a regular practice.
But when it came to prime-time TV, killing off a character, though more common, was still never as rampant as it seems to be now.
It’s not that this is a bad thing. Some shows, like “The Walking Dead,” call for it. Because, let’s face it, if there ever is a zombie apocalypse, people are going to die. But, with all of these character deaths on our favorite shows, won’t this ploy eventually get old? Will we, as viewers, eventually become desensitized? Or will the merits of good writing, good story, and good directing and acting be enough to keep up the shock value far into the future of TV?
Charlie Moss writes about local history and popular culture, including music, movies and comics. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.