Friday, December 13, 2013

Dead Wrong

At one time, Hollywood's artisans worked tirelessly to craft films that made audiences feel good.  To that end, they sometimes made a point to sand down the hard edges in a story.  The good guys won in the end.  The lovable bartender that you thought was shot and killed during the big Western shoot out turns up again with a big smile.  He has his arm in a makeshift sling and he explains that the shot was only a flesh wound.  Today, young people have come to resent this type of drama, which they see as phony and safe, and they have let their feelings be known by sneering at happy endings and throwing their support (and discretionary income) to dramatic works that have a high body count.  The high body count is appropriate to them because, in their mind, nothing can be more truthful and dramatic than death.  But, when all is said and done, that is just another dull and contrived formula.  And, I must add, it is a lot less entertaining than the formula that came before it. 

I should make it clear that I hate a story that is contrived.  A script becomes contrived when the writer ignores his instincts and interferes with the natural progress of a story and its characters.  That is the biggest sin that a writer could commit.  The next biggest sin for a writer is to create characters that are not rational and authentic.  If a writer has done his job well, the characters that he has established will dictate their own actions, making the only decisions that a person of their nature could make.  When a writer fails to create living, breathing characters or a story that moves under its own power, he is left with a script that is dull and flat.  Too many of the films and television shows that I see today are dull and flat.  Correction, they are dull and flat and bloody.

Many jaws dropped when kindly old Hershel (Scott Wilson) was decapitated in front of his two daughters on the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead.  The same scene had played out on Game of Thrones two years earlier, but it did not make it any less shocking for fans of the series.  These days, television viewers are aware that a regular character in a series can be killed off at any time. They know without a doubt that at least one regular character will die in a season finale.  A showrunner will try to increase the shock value by making the death more brutal than any of the deaths seen on television before.  I offer as proof a scene from the season finale of The Sons of Anarchy.  Biker queen Gemma (Katey Sagal) is furious with her daughter-in-law Tara (Maggie Siff).  She grabs Tara by the hair, shoves her face down in a basin of dirty dish water, and repeatedly plunges a carving fork into the back of her head.  This one-upmanship is taking television down a dark and ugly path.

It isn't even that the brutality is necessary.  Something deep inside of the human heart makes it impossible for a viewer to ever sufficiently prepare themselves for these deaths.  A viewer will develop affection for a character that they see on their television every week.  It may be that they identify with the character and see them as a good person. It may be that they come to like the actor playing that character.  At some level, the brain does not completely distinguish between a fictional character and an actual loved one who is a part of their life.  This stimuli taps into the same deep-seated primal wound into which all of our grief pours after the death of a loved one. 

What is really sad is that every one of these tragic deaths is nothing more than a gimmick.  These deaths are only contrived to stimulate Internet chatter, which is a powerful promotional tool. 

If you are unhappy with this morbid situation, you should blame Nescafé instant coffee.  No, I am not kidding.  Between 1987 and 1993, the Nescafé company produced a series of twelve 45-second commercials that depicted a slow-percolating romance between a charming couple played by Anthony Stewart Head and Sharon Maughan.  In 1997, Head was cast as Rupert Giles in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Head was given a prominent role in a first season episode called "I, Robot... You, Jane."  The plot involves a convergence of ancient evil and modern technology.  When a 15th Century book is scanned into a computer, a demon bound by the book is released into the Internet.  Buffy's Scooby Gang needs a more than fair knowledge of computers to remove the demon from its new online home.  It would have been easy for a regular cast member to suddenly reveal computer expertise.  But Joss Whedon, the show's producer, did not favor this sort of spontaneous knowledge.  For the sake of credibility, he introduced a computer teacher into the story.  The teacher was played by a leggy beauty named Robia LaMorte.  Head and LaMorte took to acting flirtatious with one another in their scenes together.  Head turned on the romantic charm that he had perfected in the Nescafé commercials.  With slightly different editing, these scenes could have been converted into a new series of instant coffee commercials.  At any moment, I expected Head to lift up a coffee mug and say, "No woman or demon can resist my coffee."

Whedon had no intention of making LaMorte a permanent member of the cast, but viewers were taken by the chemistry exhibited between LaMorte and Head.  They wanted LaMorte to stick around as Head's girlfriend.  That's when Whedon got a wicked idea.  He would pretend to add the actress to the cast only to kill her off after a few episodes.  Whedon said that he wanted to make it clear to viewers that no one is safe and "death is final and death is scary."  This strategy managed, in the end, to qualify LaMorte as Victim Zero.  Because LaMorte's death proved to be so thrilling to the show's fans, Whedon got into the habit of killing off regular characters and this had an influence on many other television series that followed - The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Lost, The Shield, 24, Rescue Me, Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead and The Sons of Anarchy.  And this was because Anthony Stewart Head had learned how to compress his portfolio of seduction moves within 45 seconds of screen time.  Damn you, Nescafé!

It can be argued that the death trend actually started with The X-FilesThe X-Files' prime mover, Chris Carter, shocked fans when he set it up for Agent Fox Mulder's faithful informant, Deep Throat, to be gunned down by an assassin in the 1994 episode "The Erlenmeyer Flask."  But I do not believe that the death of Deep Throat was calculated in the same way as the death of Long Legs.  Also, it did not seem to directly influence other series.  The many deaths on Whedon's Buffy and Angel series did, without a doubt, have a lasting influence. 

The simple fact remains, though, that killing off a familiar and sympathetic character to jolt a viewer is not real drama.  Please, get rid of the decapitated fathers and bring back the bartender with the flesh wound.

Additional Note

Jean Hagen
In past decades, sitcom producers were less shy than drama producers about killing off regular characters.  But these premature deaths were not an attempt to grab ratings.  This was something that happened when an actor wanted to leave a series or a producer was desperate to eject an actor from a series.  Jean Hagen, who was unhappy working with Danny Thomas, made a quick departure from Make Room for Daddy in 1956.  It was explained in the series that Hagen's character, Margaret Williams, had died suddenly off-screen.  Similarly, the producers of M.A.S.H. killed off the character of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake when actor McLean Stevenson left the series in 1975.  In 1980, Jean Stapleton made the decision to leave Archie Bunker’s Place because she felt that she had nothing left to bring to her iconic character Edith Bunker.  With great sadness, producer Norman Lear had Edith die off screen from a stroke.  Lear was at least able to take pride in the fact that he had defied a famous line from Paddy Chayefsky's Network (1976) that "No one ever gets cancer in Archie Bunker's house," which suggested the no beloved character on a successful television series ever dies.  In 1989, the writers of Cheers found a funny way to get rid of a reoccurring character.  It was explained in the script that Eddie LeBec, a hockey player, had been crushed beneath a Zamboni ice resurfacer.  The reason for the off-screen death was that Jay Thomas, who played LeBec, had made negative remarks about co-star Rhea Perlman on his radio show.

Drama producers got up and running with the death thing in 1991, which was a year that saw the demise of series regulars on thirtysomething, L.A. Law (Diana Muldaur's character Rosalind Shays stepped into an empty elevator shaft and plummeted to her death) and Beverly Hills, 90210.  The fact that viewers did not react to these deaths in an unfavorable way likely emboldened death pioneers like Carter and Whedon.

One More Note (published September 12, 2014): I found one other time that an early television sitcom had a series regular shuffle off this mortal coil.  In 1962, Kathleen Nolan left The Real McCoys series in a contract dispute.  The producers didn't see the viewers accepting a new actress in her role and saw no other way to explain Nolan's absence other than to kill off her character.  

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