Till death do us part

Scott Sode

When Weinberg sophomore Stefanie Erner sat down to watch the May 3 episode of ABC’s Lost, she had no idea that, by the end of the hour, three of the series’ major characters would have several gunshot wounds.

“I was in shock,” Erner says. “I couldn’t believe it. I called my boyfriend and we were both like, ‘What the hell just happened?'”

Lost producers probably hoped for this kind of reaction when they crafted the episode’s explosive final two minutes. With no kind of explanation or warning – other than a simple “I’m sorry” – one character, Michael, fired several bullets into two other characters before shooting himself in the shoulder. If those bullets prove to be fatal, it will mark the third, fourth, and fifth death of a major character on a show that has only been around for two seasons.

You might be able to chalk the death count up to the show’s entire premise in general. Lost asks its audience to assume that 45 people survived a horrific plane crash and have lived on an island – without anyone losing weight or complaining about body odor – ever since. Maybe the deaths of five principal characters are an attempt by the producers to keep the show somewhat realistic.

Erner, who counts Lost among her favorite television shows, says that the sudden character deaths ground series (somewhat) in reality.

“The whole premise of Lost is just so out there to begin with,” she says. “Given the fact that they are human and they have guns and are stranded on an island, it’s only natural that they’re going to lose some of their (ability to) rationalize and make informed decisions.”

But Lost is just one in a string of TV series that are killing off major cast-members for the sake of shocking and maintaining audience interest. Fox’s 24 may have revived the method. After Jack Bauer’s wife died in the show’s first season, no actor who has subsequently signed a contract with the series – save maybe Kiefer Sutherland – has ever had any job security.

Even on Showtime’s more realistic lesbian drama, The L Word, one character, Dana, falls victim to breast cancer at the end of the third season instead of making it through her chemotherapy.

But character deaths can create more than shock value; they’ve recently become a mainstream method to increase ratings. Still, killing off beloved characters and alienating loyal fans is a risky move for that sometimes backfires.

In the season opener of Alias, Michael Vartan’s character Vaughn was shot multiple times and apparently died in a hospital. The show immediately slumped in ratings and has only slightly picked up recently due to the birth of Sydney Bristow’s (Jennifer Garner) baby. Fans were so angered by the death of a beloved character that producers will somehow bring Vaughn back to life for the final episodes of the series.

Characters often anchor a show’s plot. Could you imagine an Ally McBeal without Ally McBeal? A Grey’s Anatomy without Meredith Grey?

Reality TV might be one of the catalysts for these types of character killings.

Every week one singer leaves American Idol and just as many people tune into the next episode. Viewers like Erner – who, incidentally, watches Idol and America’s Next Top Model – get used to not seeing familiar faces around but still watch the show anyway.

“TV is addicting in that, once you get hooked on a show – even if you kill off a major character – it’s just such a habit that it doesn’t matter,” Erner says. “Unless the show becomes noticeably worse, you probably won’t stop watching.”

Medill sophomore Meghan Watt disagrees. Once a big fan of 24, Watt now refuses to watch the show after two characters, Tony and Michelle, were fatally injured in the first few minutes of the season premiere.

“I was really excited to see what they were going to do,” Watt says. “Two minutes in, a car explodes. Michelle dies, Tony goes into a coma. I was like, ‘No, you did not just kill off my two favorite characters in one fell swoop.’ I really didn’t want to watch the rest of the season if they were just going to do that. If (producers) just kill off your favorite characters, how are you supposed to get excited for the rest of the season?”

Overall, Erner doesn’t mind that several main characters have died on Lost, but she does think it extinguishes potentially entertaining storylines.

“I think it’s a good way to keep viewers on their toes,” she says. “You want that kind of plot twist in a show, but then the loose ends are never completely tied up.”

Two of the deceased characters, for instance, had been in romantic relationships with other characters before they died.

Watt thinks that the biggest problem with character deaths is lack of originality, now that the method has become more mainstream.

“I guess it can be exciting and cool,” Watt says. “But once it becomes the only resort you have, like, ‘Oh no, the season’s boring, we need to kill off a character’…then it just becomes predictable.”

Medill sophomore Scott Sode is a PLAY writer. He can be reached at [email protected]