[This will obviously contain spoilers… I’ll warn you again, but obviously I can only warn you so many times.]
An unexpected thing happened on Monday (April 6) night’s episode of “House.”
Yes, I could be referring to the impressively understated performance by a certain occasional rock star, first name “Meat,” last name “Loaf.”
I could be. Obviously, though, I’m not. If I were, that would hardly require a spoiler warning. I’ve seen “Fight Club.” I knew Meat Loaf could act.
No, I’m referring to the shocking death of a main character, a demise that got me thinking about the way that network television generally treats death and, with a long plane flight in front of me, I’ve got nothing to do but type and muse until I land and get some Internet access.
[This is your last warning. After the break, I’m going to talk about last night’s “House” and “24,” last week’s “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” and as many other recent TV fatalities as I can consider.]
First of all, R.I.P. to Lawrence Kutner.
Within the opening 10 minutes of Monday’s “House,” 13 and Forman went to check up on Kal Penn’s Kutner and found him dead of a self-inflicted bullet-wound to the head. We saw the gun. We saw the pool of bool. We saw the rouge smear around 13’s lips, the results of a failed effort at resuscitation. What we never saw was a body.
When I say, “We hardly knew ye,” that was part of the point.
Kutner’s arc on “House” actually ended in the best way possible, not on Monday’s episode, obviously, but the last time we glimpsed the character, he was smiling after an unexpected compliment from his mentor. His quick thinking had saved Mos Def’s life and saved Taub’s job and earned House’s respect. For a character so often played as comic relief — He *is* Kumar, after all — it was a shining moment.
We knew little about Kutner other than that his parents had been killed in front of him. That was a defining piece of information, but less-so than 13’s combination of Huntington’s and bisexuality or Taub’s combination of Judaism, plastic surgery and marital infidelity. If we liked Kutner, it was probably because we like Kal Penn. His death was shocking because we couldn’t have seen it coming and nor could House, who spent an episode blaming everybody in sight for not seeing the signs that he’d missed himself.
I’m not a big spoiler guy, so I didn’t know Penn was leaving the show. I knew somebody was dying on “House,” but that’s only because a Facebook friend is a spoiler guy who can’t resist putting unwanted information in his headlines. FOX’s promo team warned me that this was the episode of “House” that would change everything, but that’s just promo hyperbole, I figured. And since, by network promo standards, House experiencing a hangnail can “change everything,” I assumed it was being oversold.
This is the second time in a week that I’ve been blindsided by a death on a FOX show. On last Friday’s “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” Brian Austin Green’s Derek Reese took a bullet to the head in the show’s first 15 minutes as part of a home invasion sequence so chaotic I simply didn’t register what had happened. I hit rewind thrice, once to see what had occurred, once to see how it had occurred and a third time to marvel at how matter-of-fact it had been. Yes, we lingered briefly on his corpse, but everybody moved on.
Credit “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” creative team for understanding that with nothing to lose from a ratings standpoint, they could be true to the story’s essential ethos, which is that life for those around John Connor is a dangerous business and that nobody is safe. And perhaps because the ratings have been so consistently low, FOX decided that this wasn’t the time to pimp out this plot development. I’d contrast the demise of The Notorious B.A.G. to the way FOX and the “T:SCC” team teased and hinted at a big death in the fall. Everybody knew it was coming, but when it turned out to just be Garret Dillahunt’s Cromartie, it was anti-climactic, especially since Cromartie was just reprogrammed into John Henry and the ever-remarkable Dillahunt has hardly missed an episode.
Deaths are still the exception rather than the rule on “House” and “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.” On FOX’s “24,” they’re the rule and the show alternates between casual detachment and a fetishistic Thanatos. It’s a show that doesn’t hesitate to nuke Valencia or to blow up 250 jet passengers in a single special effects show, but when James Morrison’s Bill Buchanan, a moderately liked character in most fan circles, died earlier this season, he received promotion, a silent clock and the normally peripatetic Jack Bauer paused for at least five minutes to mourn him. Because Buchanan was a character the producers like, nobody reveled in his death. A less beloved character, like Chris Mulkey’s Doug Knowles, can face more sadistic treatment, getting bashed around by Jon Voight’s Big Bad and eventually tossed over a railing in a scene calculated to make viewers clap their hands and yell, “Damn, that Evil Jon Voight is a bad mutha!”
Even FOX’s procedurals have been milking the emotional side of death lately. “Bones,” which normally treats its bodies-of-the-week as little more than tubs of goo or piles of viscera, made last week’s victim the former fiance to Tamara Taylor’s Cam, an odd infusion of sentiment (and an out-of-left-field backstory) for both the series and, particularly, the character.
The way shows on different networks treat death is generally governed by the brand of the network in general.
CBS’ procedurals race through bodies at a rate of roughly 10 per week, if you include three “CSI” platforms, “Cold Case,” “Without a Trace,” “NCIS,” “Ghost Whisperer,” “Numb3rs,” “Eleventh Hour,” “The Mentalist” and the spectacularly ghoulish “Criminal Minds.” Sometimes the week’s case might take on a little more or less significance for the investigators and sometimes, usually during sweeps, One Of Their Own Will Die, but none of the CBS shows can take the risk of getting excessively wrapped up in the tragedies. If you ever see the work become too much for the CBS investigator, it’s usually a sign that the actor has asked to leave the show — i.e. Mandy Patinkin or William Petersen.
The amateur shink in me yearns to somehow connect this attitude toward death to CBS’ higher median age, to imply that CBS’ audience is one that can face mortality, but prefers not to dwell on it. That may be part of it, but it’s a subcutaneous explanation. On the surface. CBS procedurals are about resolution. In the beginning of every episode, somebody’s found dead. At the end of every episode, the guilty party is brought to justice. The characters don’t take their jobs home with them and viewers don’t need to worry either. Death is the beginning. Satisfaction is the ending. And you almost never need to worry about the two getting reversed.
It’s here that I mention that CBS is bucking its own formula with this Thursday’s premiere of “Harper’s Island.” Part Agatha Christie mystery and part slasher movie, “Harper’s Island” will offer week after week of murder leading up to what will presumably be a satisfying explanation in Week 13. As a young-skewing serial, “Harper’s Island” is off-brand for CBS, as is its sense of carnage. Will an audience trained to expect its heroes to live and its bad guys to be punished all in the course of 44 minutes be able to reverse course? I’ll have my review up on Wednesday, I suspect.
The other thing about “Harper’s Island” is that the whole show is a Death Stunt, so individual episodes can’t be promoted based on their body count.
That’s the ABC model. With its stable of serials, ABC’s goal is to get viewers emotionally involved in the ongoing process on its shows. That ongoing process often includes death and when that occurs, ABC is more-than-eager to cry to the mountaintops that the end is neigh for one of your favorite characters. That’s the case even when the end isn’t neigh at all. Is anybody else still scratching their head about that “Brothers & Sisters” death that ABC trumpeted for weeks?
Because of the soap-y nature of ABC’s shows, death doesn’t always mean what it used to anyway.
“Grey’s Anatomy,” currently in the process of what either will or won’t be a prolonged death march for Katherine Heigl’s Izzie, made the bold step of killing off its main character, its title character. Yes, for the better part of two episodes, Ellen Pompeo’s Meredith was no longer amongst the living. Since the show absolutely could have survived without her, it seemed like it could have been an audacious development. But she got better.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Denny spent a season dying, made a couple short cameos and then returned for a multi-episode Ghost Sex arc this season. He has, if memory serves, done similar duty — minus the Ghost Sex — on “Supernatural.” He also spent an entire movie basically haunting Hilary Swank from beyond the grave. To paraphrase Ice-T, currently investigating homicides on NBC, Jeffrey Dean Morgan consistently dies harder than Bruce Willis.
“Lost” is another ABC show that stunts its deaths, but doesn’t always bid permanent farewell to its corpses. Terry O’Quinn’s Locke is the rare character to retain his cast regular status after becoming a casuality, but everyone from Jack’s Dad to Boone to Analucia has been able to return either as ghosts, hallucinations or flashbacks. Nicki and Paulo haven’t been resurrected yet, but we can all dream.
As it caters to younger viewers, The CW can’t afford to have death on its mind for too long. “Reaper” plays death for comedy and, at times, does it marvelously well. With shows like “90210” and “Gossip Girl,” though, death is just another cause for brooding, drinking and general angst, only slightly more dramatic than senior prom, losing your virginity or a zit. Should the netlet pick up Kevin Williamson’s “Vampire Diaries” pilot, I’d expect that trend to continue. It’s death as a metaphor for life.
NBC is a disaster, so you can’t really make any broad statements about its handling of death. The “Law & Order” shows follow the CBS model. “ER,” now deceased itself, was the master of the November/February/May death, whether it involved the show’s main physicians or just a well-known guest star. “Heroes” manages to out-do “Lost” when it comes to the afterlife fake-out. When Landry killed Tyra’s assailant on “Friday Night Lights,” it quashed an entire season and has become something so verboten that even when it would make sense to discuss it — Tyra’s college essay should have been “Really, I Want to Leave the Town Where My Sister Strips and My Boyfriend Murdered My Attempted Rapist,” a tome that could have gotten her into Harvard — it’s off limits. Nothing harshes the comedic buzz on “Chuck” faster than a mention of the main character’s mother. And on “Medium,” the main character sees Dead People. See? It’s all over the map.
Death is everywhere on the small screen. FOX just has me dealing with it this week.
[What’d I tell you? Here I am on an airplane with no Internet and no interest in my available movie options, so what do I do? I write 2000 word essays on death. Morbid much?]
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