TV Talk: Death Death Death

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TV-T&PC (1)As usual, there are no spoilers!

There is an epidemic. They’re dying in record numbers, one after another after another. I am, of course talking about TV characters.

There was a time that a death of a character on a show was a big deal. We grew attached to our fictional friends, and yes, that friendship was a little one-sided, but when they disappeared into the great Television Beyond, it was sad.

Now we know better.

I couldn’t even begin to give you a death toll for my week so far in television viewing. And that’s just the Real Housewives of New York! (Just kidding. Only lady parts seem to be harmed in the making of that show, because they talk about them. A lot. A kind of Vagina Dialogues, if you will. And no, that joke didn’t do well on Twitter either).

Seriously, though, the deaths come so quickly and so meaninglessly that they’re starting to have nearly zero impact. And that’s bad for the shows, that’s bad for television, and it’s bad for society as a whole.

The best thing you can have for a television show is a completely engaged audience. Loyal fans who will go out and spread the word, who will tweet with the show, who will attend events and generally show support. And while possible death of favorite characters is a good way to build tension, it can’t be your only way.

Here’s the thing with that: if you keep teasing it, eventually you have to make it happen, or else that element of tension is lost. Some shows don’t care, and actually trade on the safety of knowing that one of the main characters is never going to die. Early “Castle,” for example, allowed fans to enjoy the peril and, more importantly, enjoy seeing how the characters would escape it, knowing that they would.

But if you constantly kill off characters, instead of engaging fans, they tend to disconnect. Why? Because who wants to be broken up over someone who never actually existed ceasing to exist? There’s no point in getting attached to characters who are only temporary.

Not all shows are guilty of it. But the problem is that watching so much TV death on some shows inures us to death on others. And, I think, makes us less sensitive to real-life tragedy.

Yes, TV death allows dramatic, tension-filled scenes with lots of bloody gore. But constant death and constant gore only creates a gulf between viewer and show.

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14 thoughts on “TV Talk: Death Death Death

  1. This is such a great point that I never thought about. Especially because I watch Game of Thrones and everyone dies so I’ve just come to accept that nobody is safe. I didn’t even realize how indifferent I’d become to death on TV. I think the saddest part is that it’s not shows, it’s the news too that constantly shows death that we get numb to it because how else are we supposed to cope? I wonder what can be done to fix this.

    • I’m so sorry, the notifications didn’t show me your comment! I agree, it all becomes the same noise, and we become detached because of it. Honestly, I think the answer is for artists to pull back and use some restraint, to find other ways of creating tension, because if you overuse one method, it loses its impact.

      I think it also matters in terms of how the deaths are treated in fictional media. It’s often with a shrug and a quick move on, and we tend to do that when we hear about tragedy involving strangers.

      On the flip side of that, we are inundated with sad news, because we have access to information that would only have been local before, and we can’t function if we internalize all tragedies.

      It’s an interesting situation from a social-science perspective, and I suspect there are people researching it currently.

      • I would guess you are correct about people doing research on this subject. It’s funny because sometimes I used to think something was wrong with me when I heard about a tragedy and knew it was horrible and that I should feel bad, but it didn’t feel like I was feeling much at all. Other times I hear something and am brought to tears. I never guessed that it could be a direct correlation to what I’m viewing and exposed to. You have opened my mind up! A lot to contemplate here.

      • There is definitely nothing wrong with you! Some of it is natural human defense…but some things hit us harder than others. It’s just when nothing really hits us, then we really need to worry!

  2. The last tv show I got totally engaged with was “Breaking Bad’- Everything else seemed insipid after that show. Would love something to take it’s place!

    • If you like sci-fi, 12 Monkeys is truly incredible, as is Orphan Black. I also love Outlander, which is very lightly fantasy. Wentworth, the Australian prison show is good, and also very dark. I assume you’ve seen the British shows with that kind of feel…Luther, Happy Valley…

      OH, and you must watch Fargo! It has two seasons, which are each kind of self-contained. The Affair is also excellent (and has two British leads doing flawless American accents).

      All of them have excellent writing, which is why I think Breaking Bad was so good.

      On a more soapy end, UnReal is a fun show, where you get to explore a darker side of female characters, which is pretty unusual.

      I hope you enjoy if you try any of these shows!

      • Thank you so much for these brilliant recommendations. I must say alot of good shows pass me by. I will make a point of checking these out. Getting lost in a TV drama (or a book) is my idea of heaven. Have a lovely day. x

  3. I actually disagree. Well, maybe that’s a strong word, but I don’t whole-heartedly agree. It’s clearly true for some people. I am a regular GOT watcher, known for killing off beloved characters, but because the show is actually well-written, the fans are DEVOTED! Totally, completely, cut off my arm just don’t cancel the show, Devoted. The death toll has not harmed the show or lost it viewers, I’m convinced.

    It may be true that we’re desensitized to real-life tragedies, but it is also true that since the advent of social media, we now can readily find out about EVERY tragedy. Of course, we typically only read about what the media has decided is vital, but when every death is public, we have to pick and choose which we allow to affect us, or cannot survive. (At least, I couldn’t. Too many deaths, and I descend into the abyss for a while.)

    I always appreciate your thought-provoking posts!
    http://doesntspeakklingon.blogspot.com

    • I think the problem is that too many shows are trying to replicate GOT…it’s the exception that proves the rule* (*honestly I have never really understood this phrase, but I think could mean this. It’s nonsensical). It is the way the story and the world are structured.

      But every story and every world can’t be structured that way. That’s the problem: the rules of that universe are being applied everywhere.

      So it works for that show, which is based on books which I assume follow the same brutal principles, but when you have five shows in one week killing everyone off, the death loses its punch overall.

      We do gain a lot of empathy from our entertainment; studies have shown that readers tend to be more empathetic because of their travels in other people’s shoes. I do think desensitization is an issue, because valuing a fictional life is, in many ways, similar to valuing the life of someone you will never meet.

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