Note: This article is completely spoiler-free. I won’t mention any specific deaths here.
Not even television can avoid death it seems. Most serial TV dramas will inevitably kill off a member of its regular cast. Of course some shows rush for the guillotine more often than others. I’m looking at you 24. From the pilot’s first airing it’s only a matter of time. Death gives an out to the actors who want off a show. It gives an out to the writers who find a character no longer useful. It gives a bonus to TV executives who will love those bigger ratings. And yes, it even benefits us. While we might cry and complain about a character’s demise, we often draw closer to the show, and relish the characters still standing.
Death in TV brings up a great deal of politics, but it’s the emotional aspect I wish to look at here. What it means to us as viewers. While characters die by the truckload in films and we don’t bat an eyelash, television is different. We spend hours upon hours in the fictional TV world, with roughly the same group of crime detectives, doctors, or criminals. They grow on us, and we do develop a certain relationship with them, even if it is only one-sided.
It hurts. It usually comes out of nowhere, or maybe you’ve suspected for a while it would happen. Either way we enter that moment of shock and disbelief. Your stomach begins to feel queasy, like when you see a ceramic plate falling to the floor. Your eyes begin to well up. Some may even release the odd tear.
These regular-cast deaths are usually the most memorable moments of any show. Sometimes I just can’t help but think TV writers are manipulating us. It’s rare we ever get emotional towards an event in a show that isn’t tied to a loss of some kind. It’s the most nasty thing you can do to a group of fictional characters. The character usually isn’t too happy to be dead, and we have to be there to see the other characters in their grief. You see what this person meant to them, and in a chain reaction it brings up our own emotions all over again.
We have our favourites of course, ones we’re ambivalent towards, and ones we just can’t wait to get rid of.
After an episode involving a death you may end up watching the credits right to the end. And you never watch to the end. You may sit there for a little while, questioning the show, and perhaps even your own life. It’s like the seven stages of grief all in one night.
And then we want to tell someone about it. But of course if you haven’t seen a certain episode, there is no way you want to know what happens. It ruins the entire experience of a show. And instead of feeling depressed we are only angry, and all we want is to kill a certain friend, or some jerk on the Internet.
So we find ways around it. We skip around the death, head to Twitter, Facebook, or online forums, and say something vague like “Holy crap! Did you see <TV show> tonight?”, or “Noooooooooooooooooooooo”. We txt a friend to see if they saw the same thing you did, curious to know their reaction. Of course in New Zealand with shows pulled mid-season, or shown a year later we miss out on the conversation. Unless one resorts to torrenting. And if we are watching a show on DVD alone, there’s not much you can do but keep the burden inside, pick out a clean handkerchief, and cry yourself to sleep.
Death in television. It’s of no comparison to the grief we feel in real life. But it’s a sliver of that feeling of loss. And if we are really involved in a piece of fiction, it still affects us in some way. We react to it. At the end of the day it’s an inescapable part of drama on television. As much as we want the character to outrun the grim reaper, it’s usually for the best. It reshapes the narrative, and of course adds new characters to the fray. Death stays with us and reminds us that watching television is worth it. We do feel something after all.