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secondhand croak
death expectancy on tv shows
by mike julianelle
11.16.05
television


* THIS COLUMN SPOILS THE NOVEMBER 9TH EPISODE OF "LOST" *

A few weeks ago I was surfing the net and I accidentally stumbled across the name of a character who was going to die on the then-upcoming November 9th episode of "Lost." I was immediately pissed off that I had inadvertently robbed myself of the impact of a character's death on what ABC was obnoxiously trumpeting as the biggest episode of the year. Or at least until February Sweeps.

And then I read the name again and realized I didn't care. The ads had been touting the 11/9 ep as the one everyone would be talking about -- please don't tell me what I will or won't be talking about, you smug network punks -- and teasing us that a cast member was going to die. They tried to present Sawyer as the likely victim, what with his gunshot wound and all, but I knew better. And if I'd given any thought to the actual most likely candidates, I probably could have figured it out on my own. And so could you.

Here are a few multiple-choice questions:

Of the following "Star Trek" characters, who is most likely to die?
A) Kirk
B) Spock
C) Bones
D) The guy in the red shirt

Of the following "Desperate Housewives" cast members, who is most likely to die?
A) Teri Hatcher
B) Eva Longoria
C) Marcia Cross
D) The next door neighbor who's not on any magazine covers

Of the following "Lost" castaways, who is most likely to die?
A) Jack
B) Locke
C) Sawyer
D) Shannon

It made a lot of sense that it was Shannon who bit the bullet, seeing as compared to the rest of the ensemble she's pretty insignificant. She didn't factor in to any of the deeper island mysteries and was of importance primarily for her (cough*looks*cough) relationship to a few of the other people on the show, one of whom is already dead and one of whom is a dog.

I am not going to whine about spoilers; while I don't like being spoiled, it's easy enough to avoid. But I am going to whine about the impact that knowing too much about the machinations and production of television shows, as opposed to their actual content, can have on your enjoyment of a show.

We are all too familiar with the rules of the game. We've watched way too much television to be fooled into thinking a main character will be knocked off, even if it is sweeps, and more and more of us know about the business of television: contract lengths, the improbability of an actor who's landed a new show making a shocking reappearance on his old one, etc. That knowledge makes it even harder to be surprised by a medium that is too timid to take many risks in the first place.

On most TV shows all it takes is the process of elimination to determine who is and who isn't going to die, especially once the network starts promoting the show with heavy-handed previews that reveal as much by what they don't show as what they do.

"Lost" is lucky in that there are a lot of prominent characters to choose from and therefore more expendable characters than most shows. But even on an ensemble drama like "Lost" there is a hierarchy that the writers dare not violate. Jack, Locke, Sawyer and Kate aren't going anywhere. They are the stars and they shan't be harmed.

The closest they came to making a shocking move was when they had the chance to kill off Charlie last season. But they didn't even have the balls to leave one of the show's most annoying and increasingly less pivotal characters hanging out to die. His role has seemingly been reduced since as if the writers realize he's a lame duck.

Killing a main character is problematic because TV shows can't survive without them, not when they have 22 hours of programming to fill. No network executive wants to take a chance on "The Tony Almeida Power Hour" or "Xander, the Vampire Slayer's Friend." Sure, some people might watch those shows but TV isn't made for some people. It's made for MOST people (witness the sad news of “Arrested Development”’s oft-rumored, finally realized cancellation.) And therein lies the problem: You are all sheep.

Ironically, I think the public's desire for and ability to handle some unpredictability and creative risk-taking may be evidenced by the otherwise creatively bankrupt and formulaic "American Idol" and "Survivor" programs. No one has a contract on those shows except, unfortunately, the hosts, and therefore you never know who will be voted off at the end of the episode. It might even be your favorite!

It has to be tough for the writers of shows such as "Lost" -- shows that require high stakes to remain exciting but can't be so high that the characters can't survive them. Both the genius and the problem with "24" is that every single episode puts Jack in a do-or-die situation, each one more of a do-er or die-r than before, and each one ends with him trumping the odds -- however improbably -- and escaping. Once he even died for a few minutes, only to be revived with little suspense.

When it comes to most television, the rules just aren't broken. Punches are constantly pulled.

One clever attempt to subvert the expectations of the knowledgeable viewer never came to pass. For the premiere episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," creator Joss Whedon wanted to feature an actor in the opening credits because he KNEW he was going to be killed off before the premiere ended and he wanted to show the audience that his show wasn't afraid to kill off prominent characters. But the network balked at the cost of re-shooting the title sequence just to trick viewers and it never came to pass. "Buffy" was able to maintain an unpredictability and intensity that a lot of shows can't, but still had to cheat a few times when it came to the "demise" of a character or two.

The bottom liners that run the networks know: someone always has to live. Because, as opposed to death and taxes, in the TV world the only sure things are Dick Clark, "60 Minutes" and spin-offs.


ABOUT MIKE JULIANELLE

Let's get real here. You don't want to know about me. You want to know about "me".

more about mike julianelle

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COMMENTS

jael mchenry
11.16.05 @ 8:51a

Abso-frickin-lutely. It's impossible to be surprised anymore, given how heavily networks promote upcoming deaths. I think the last time I was shocked by this kind of thing was during an episode of "Chicago Hope."

mike julianelle
11.16.05 @ 8:57a

My brother read this and told me I should've mentioned Alias, since they kill off characters a lot. But I've stopped watching so it slipped my mind. But their big Super Bowl ep, the one that reinvented the show, was pretty crazy, even if it didn't kill anyone off.

Not trying to be a fanboy, but Buffy is one of the few shows that truly shocked me in its best moments. Being vague so as not to spoil someone in particular, WHO WILL WATCH. Oh yes. She will watch.

sandra thompson
11.16.05 @ 9:10a

I was shocked at who got killed off on "Six Feet Under" even though I knew the show was not returning and all of 'em could have been killed off if the writers wanted to. Wouldn't that have been a hoot?

mike julianelle
11.16.05 @ 9:18a

Well, they kind of all were! I originally had a paragraph about 6FU in here, but stressed that the show clearly only killed such a major character off when the show was ending, and then let that character reappear CONSTANTLY as a ghost anyways. Punches pulled.

jael mchenry
11.16.05 @ 9:49a

Boone's death on Lost could have been shocking if they hadn't been all SOMEONE WILL DIE. Because the story ramifications were actually solid, and he was a pretty major character, not just a redshirt.

I actually had the same problem with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, because it was trumpeted so heavily that someone would die in this installment, so I spent the whole book thinking "Is this it? Okay, is this it?" and because I'd already guessed, like, everyone, of course I was disappointed when the scene came and I thought, "Oh, sure, I guessed that already."

mike julianelle
11.16.05 @ 9:56a

Exactly. And I'm not sure a show like Lost, with such a following, even needs heavy-handed promos to get people to tune in. People are watching anyways. Besides, it's during sweeps, and everyone knows all the important stuff happens during sweeps. Which is another issue I have.

An early incarnation of this article bemoaned the fact that if you wanted to you could really watch only a handful of eps (premiere, finale, and the sweeps eps) and avoid the rest and you'd get all the major stuff. It's not unlike the way the movie studios load the best material into award season and leave the dregs for the rest of the year.

hank y
11.16.05 @ 11:45a

Mike - finally something I feel compelled enough to answer..... All tv shows never ever kill off the main one and it sucks. Maxwell Smart made it through several years of ineptitude. Hogan and his gang never got caught sneeking out of the Stalag.

Now, remember, Buffy did die but they brought her back (with a hefty raise) but she was hoooooottttt so I didnt mind. But wouldn't it have been OK to watch Willow and her girlfriend (come to think of it, she died, too. Way to go, Joss) in a lesbian-fight-demons-on-the-side show for several years?

Hate to admit I watch Charmed but at least they had the guts to kill off a charachter - OK so Shannon D was a complete C**T and it gave the writers some extra glee to get rid of her.

But on the subject of Alias.... ya know, for such hot shot agents, they sure dont kill a lot of people. And now that Jennifer went and get herself spawned by Ben, the show isnt even worth watching for the soft core porn outfits she wore... AND!!! They changed the opening so we dont get to see her in 35 outfits.

I actually thought Six Feet Under was going to kill off one person a week from the main cast but c'est la vie.

Oh, and in case you are not a TV-holic like me, you probably missed the ads for ER saying that this week, one of the doctors would pay the ultimate sacrifice. Yea, right. They will probably find out that Sherry Springfield died off camera so she can not re-do her career again by crawling back to Chicago County's emergency room.


I think, that the only show that has any pseudo-reality is The Sopranos. If none of them dumb mucks died in 5 seasons, HBO would no longer be called cable.

Now... if only they would kill off the main charachters from the Bush Administration whenever they were found out to be lying sacks of crap. Man, we would run out of Republicans REALLY fast. What would the writers ever do?

[edited]

john ingoglia
11.16.05 @ 12:20p

Jules,

As a tevo/tv watcher, I am able to watch a wide variety of series that I cannot typically follow, be it Lost or Sex Games: Las Vegas. But with ALL promos, save ALIEN, much is given to the viewer in either misleading red herrings or actual plot twists that you shouldn't know going in to the coming chapter.

I have been professing the anti-preview cause for many years now and I'm glad that you are now coming around. You have grown so much since you used to get terribly upset at me because I made you late to movies so we could miss the previews. How that used to make me warm inside. Almost as much as seeing Suj on a white pony in a head dress.;)

-Schwarg

[edited]

juli mccarthy
11.16.05 @ 3:06p

My usual disclaimer: I don't watch much TV. I do remember being very surprised that on Star Trek:TNG, Tasha Yar was killed off. Yes, she was eventually brought back in flashbacks, alternate realities and a superbly stupid (but thankfully short-lived) storyline, but the initial shock of her demise was well over by then. Then too, ST:TNG wasn't really network television, and at the time I don't thik as many people had message boards and stuff on which to speculate aloud.

One other - there was another show I used to love on the Sci-Fi channel, Forever Knight. *I* didn't know the series was ending when it did, but in the last ep, THE main character was killed off. Even if I had known the series was ending, I think I still would have been surprised, because the episode was sort of mid-story-arc, and it just... stopped. I thought it was totally cool.

mike julianelle
11.16.05 @ 3:19p

See? It IS cool. Just once I want to see a show TOTALLY sweep the rug out from under the viewers. I said this on TWoP, but imagine if on The West Wing - instead of having the anti-climactic "Bartlett has MS, will he run for re-election" cliffhanger, all of us knowing FULL WELL that Sheen was going nowhere and Barlett would of course run again, and of course win - imagine if he DID drop out of the race in the finale? Viewers would be left without a CLUE as to what would happen.

But risks like that can't be taken. Can't take the chance of alienating viewers by changing the show too much and then losing ratings and revenue.

There are degrees of risk taking - I'm not saying all shows are bland, by any means - but there is always the certainty that bets will be hedged, somehow, and that there is always a parachute waiting to be deployed at the last possible minute.

mike julianelle
11.17.05 @ 8:52a

FYI - I have not watched LAST NITE'S Lost yet (11/16), so please don't post any spoilers on this discussion!

tracey kelley
11.17.05 @ 11:14a

West Wing killed of Mrs. Landingham for no particular reason. I thought that, while not central, she was integral to a primary character,and thus the killing was important.

Since I didn't watch Buffy while it was on tv, was it ever promoted that someone (Buffy) would die? And then, since she had a couple of run ins, does it really matter after a certain point? No -

for the exact reason you stated - the main character is never dead for long and we are conditioned to know that.

I don't think this rule applies to soap operas, though.

mike julianelle
11.17.05 @ 12:36p

Landingham wasn't a main character. her death resonated, sure, but it didn't change the show.

And no, Buffy didn't, and most shows DON'T, trumpet an upcoming death. They ALL blare about their important episodes (all sweeps of course) but rarely talk of deaths. Except Lost, which has the luxury of tons of characters but also the pressure of needing to manifest the danger that they constantly hype.

90210 promoted a show with the tease of a death, something like 'one of their own dies!', which had the intended effect of getting everyone in 9th grade talking about who would die, looking for clues in the previews, etc, only to be totally cheated with it being a 4th string character. Total crap! But it's part of the reality of TV.

russ carr
11.17.05 @ 12:48p

That John Ritter show killed John Ritter. Involuntarily, but, y'know, still dead.



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