Sunday!

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?


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Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to AskJaybird-at-gmail.com

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17 thoughts on “Sunday!

  1. Voyager: we were all surprised when the entire cast was killed off and replaced by clones that acted completely differently, even though it happened every week.

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  2. It’s definitely gotten out of hand with shows and they mostly do it just to shock people, except it isn’t really that shocking anymore.

    I have been enjoying the last season of Turn, which just aired Episode 4 last night. Even though they take great liberties with the historical facts, it has gotten pretty darn good. I think it’s going to wrap things up nicely.

    And while Fear the Walking Dead is still finding its footing, the cold openings have been really good the last couple of weeks. It’s nice to see AMC actually trying because big brother Walking Dead phones it in now.

    Also, if you like British humor and have a few hours to burn, check Lovesick on Netflix. It’s addictive.

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    • 52 episodes. Then done.
      Why didn’t they stick to the outline?

      Even Gortimer Gibbons could stick to the damn outline. (seriously, it’s hard to get network execs to do this).

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  3. The Shield’s pilot aired in 2002 if I’m reading the Internet correctly, and they killed off a character in that episode.

    Eta – OZ predates Sopranos by a few years, and was kinda famous in its time for its body count.

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    • Oz is arguably what launched the Golden Age of Television… not necessarily because of the show itself (though it was awesome), but because it begat the Sopranos and all that came hence.

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    • The Shield’s pilot was a masterpiece of misdirection. They set up a conflict that was clearly going to be the main plot of at least the first season, and then blew it all up when the ostensible chief protagonist got killed.

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  4. I will Shaw my age, but Hill Street Blues is what launched what we are calling, for purposes of this discussion, the Golden Age of Television.

    It was the first show that had several, parallel, multi-season archs, were characters evolved, shaped by circumstances; where no one was totally a white or a black hat; where sometimes good guys lost; where sometimes the best result possible required you to compromise your principles.

    If there’s an older example, I don’t remember it. But I know that the Hill Street Blues model started to be copied thereafter

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  5. 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.)

    For a more drastic example, the title and entire human cast of Jeff’s Collie were replaced in season 3 when George Cleveland died, resulting in Lassie.

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  6. Does it REALLY matter?
    When you do a character death, you want to Make It Count.
    That’s it.
    Sometimes, you’re going for Martin’s “Suckerpunch you to the gut”

    Oh, I think the best done “shocking” character death was on… (oh, wait, this is a total spoiler)…
    Gortimer Gibbons. I mean, really, kids show!

    But the best death of the last year? On Bojack Horseman. You knew it was coming, it was signposted since the character showed up, for god’s sake! And it hit like a metric ton of bricks.

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  7. In the comedy show Police Squad (which was cancelled after two episodes as a TV show, but was fairly successful as a string of movies), one running gag was to announce a special guest star, then kill him off in the opening credits.

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  8. Ned Stark died in 1996. The show just televised it.

    But if you want odd cast changes, you have to go with Coy and Vance who replaced Bo and Luke Duke for a season. (I was in the fourth or fifth grade, so this was important)

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