The 1997 movie “Murder at 1600” was an otherwise unremarkable movie that had a great line in it. Wesley Snipes was investigating the eponymous murder and was told by an agent “You were born to become a chalk outline.”
(Warning: There will be spoilers in here. The Vox article I link to has, among other things, a list of every character who died in the 2015-2016 television season. Like, I got spoiled on stuff that happened in shows I don’t even watch. So beware!)
I was pointed to an article on Vox that discussed the killing of characters in television shows and says that the death of Ned Stark in Game of Thrones was… here, let me cut and paste it:
Game of Thrones’ Ned Stark changed TV — but too many shows took the wrong lessons from his death.
The article then goes on to show how many people died in the 2015-2016 television season (Caroline Framke did a cracking job assembling the list). If you don’t want to spoil yourself (and who can blame you), the number is north of 230.
When *I* was a kid, they only killed a character on a television show when the actor/actress left the show and it was acrimonius. “Fine! You quit? WELL, YOU’RE NEVER COMING BACK!” Or, I suppose, the actor/actress in question died in real life. (Season 7 of The Waltons, for example, opened with everybody coming back from Grandpa’s funeral. Why? Because Will Geer passed away soon after Season 6 wrapped up.)
So when a recurring character died on a television show, it was shocking as heck until you heard from a grownup that so-and-so had a contract dispute. Or, if it wasn’t shocking, it was downright inevitable. (How many chain-smoking bailiffs did Night Court go through?)
I heard a story about Season One of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Joss Whedon wanted to have a character in the opening credits of Season One: Show One to die at the end of the show. Like, this is 1997. The expectation game would be “Oh, I’m watching the opening credits and seeing these people and I’m now getting used to their faces AND HOLY COW ONE OF THEM DIED?!?” and it’d be a great hook to get people to watch Season One: Show Two. (Sadly, the network didn’t allow it.)
Well, a couple of years later, we had Season One of The Sopranos quickly followed by Season Two and that was the show that, to my mind, kicked off the whole “Killing Characters And Changing Television” phenomenon about a decade before Game of Thrones was even in talks with HBO.
Checking the Sopranos Wiki, 15 people died in Season One and (only) 11 people died in Season Two. But, at the time, I remember not really being surprised by any deaths in Season One beyond thinking “Jeez, note to self, don’t get involved in organized crime” but it was Season Two that had me yelling “HOLY COW!” (or similar) at the television.
To go back to the quote at the top of the page, when Jackie Aprile died of stomach cancer in Season One, it was the death of a character born to become a chalk outline. In Season Two in those last two episodes? HOLY COW.
It felt like something had changed when those guns fired.
Of course, in later seasons, it felt like the writers for the show discovered that whenever they had written themselves into a corner, they could just kill the character and, easy peasy, the stuff is wrapped up. On top of that, if someone really pressed as to what the *REAL* resolution of any given storyline was going to be, the writers could shrug and say something about real life not being all neat and tidy or something like that. People die in real life without finishing that ship in a bottle that they were building and it’s not a metaphor for something else. They just die.
So too, in entertainment.
But before the Sopranos wrapped up Season Six, the ability to shock by killing a character (even a major character) had been significantly degraded.
Which, in the short run, has all of the various writers for the various shows out there chasing the dragon and trying to recreate that moment where people yelled “HOLY COW!” at their televisions.
Out of the 230+ killed in the 2015-2016 seasons of television… how many “HOLY COW”s were yelled?
I’d be surprised if any were half as loud as those watching Sopranos Season Two. There are just too many people dying anymore. You just can’t help but notice that they’re all born to become chalk outlines.
So… what are you reading and/or watching?