Though we all like to think that we’ve got a pretty healthy understanding of the difference between reality and fiction, each one of us has been undone at one time or another by the death of a beloved television character. We’ve endured emotional outbursts over the killing off of the likes of creek-dwelling teens, ill-fated wedding attendees, troubled island castaways, Seattle-based medical professionals, and more — and on every one of these occasions, we’ve run the gamut of forms of grief: growing angry, falling to sorrow, and raising fists passionately to the skies as we call out, “Why?” As a matter of fact, unlike when it comes to real life deaths, that perplexing question actually does often have a transparent answer — it’s just not always a good one.
Some programs necessitate a regular showcase of death by virtue simply of their premise. Think of The Sopranos, a series offering a glimpse behind the curtains drawn over the Italian-American Mafia, or The Walking Dead, which concerns day-to-day life in a post-apocalyptic world infested by zombies. Others augment the drama of more mundane backdrops — small towns and high schools — with the regular promise of death by way of disease, accident, or (in the most cataclysmic of fashions) drug overdose. Friday Night Lights even roped in the War in Iraq to add a sociopolitical layer to its tragedy.
The latest series to treat its audience to an unexpected and emotionally jarring character demise is Grey’s Anatomy , which just last night gave the axe to Patrick Dempsey’s beloved character Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd. All across the Internet, viewers cried afoul of the show’s poor decision: outrageous, misguided, and totally unnecessary. The sort of thing that could only be motivated by a backstage yearning for buzz. It’s a time-tested practice, but one that doesn’t always make for the best storytelling.
The evisceration of cast members, especially in the last legs of a show’s run or toward the homestretch of a season, is a go-to ratings and notoriety boost, but is the counterintuitive sort that more often than not robs a show of its creative integrity. Why, thematically, should McDreamy have had to kick the bucket? For what reason, pray tell, was Tara McClay booted from Buffy the Vampire Slayer? And how about Lawrence Kutner’s sudden suicide on House?
Well, that one we can explain separately: Kal Penn got a job in the White House. Just like Josh Charles had opted to leave The Good Wife, and Lost star Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje couldn’t stand working in Hawaii any longer. Sometimes, character deaths aren’t motivated by studio notes nor by author intent, but by the fact that actors have someplace better to be. Once again, not usually the seedlings for the richest of story arcs.
Of course, our access to out-of-universe information can be faulted for our cynicism with the process. Knowing that Grey’s is on its way out, lacking for the viewership it once enjoyed, and gunning for one last hurrah can make viewers lament the choice to kill off Dempsey, with all the more discerning of an eye. In the instance of House, being well aware that President Barack Obama had, inscrutably, hired Penn to act as his Associate Director in the White House Office of Public Engagement lessens the artistic validity of his character Kutner’s seemingly out-of-nowhere suicide.
Then again, we have real world-necessitated deaths that haven’t rubbed us in quite the wrong way: We have Livia Soprano, killed off in accordance with the death of actress Nancy Merchand; although Livia’s final episode (a conglomeration of Merchand’s prior scenes on the show, reedited into a new series of events) took some flack upon airing, her death stands now as a lauded plot turn in the universally-esteemed The Sopranos.
Can we expect the future to be kinder to Grey’s Anatomy’s choice to chuck McDreamy from the lineup, or will the move be forever looked at as a behind-the-scenes ploy for ratings? Well, we didn’t have Twitter back when Livia Soprano died, but we can’t imagine it would have been quite as fed up as it was over this…
Images: Adam Taylor/ABC (2); HBO