When Death Shouldn’t Have Been The Answer

First in a Series on the Most Meaningless Character Deaths in TV History

No, not her. snakkle.com

On numerous occasions in this column I have often railed against one of the most overused tropes on television these days: killing off a character. At some point later this year, I intend to write a more general series of columns about this particular subject: how it was used before Peak TV, how the great shows got it right and how so many others have gotten it wrong.

This column, however, actually gets its impetus from a piece I read on Medium a week ago: Anthony Eichberger’s ’10 Absolutely Unnecessary Character Deaths’. Granted, I only had heard about five of them, but I was completely in lockstep with him on them as to their utter pointlessness. In a sense, that column has inspired this one, with one very vital caveat.

In Anthony’s column, one of the main reasons these deaths were unnecessary was because there was the actor had no reason to leave the show, either because their contract wasn’t up or they had no plans to leave. In this column, there are a couple of examples where the actor in question was planning to leave the show and the impetus to have their character killed off was purely done at the writer’s behest. In many ways, I actually consider this a worse offense. Killing a character off can too frequently seem like an act of laziness, something to be done to produce a shock rather than to bring about a meaningful end to the character’s arc. When Aaron Sorkin killed off Mrs. Landingham on the Season 2 Finale of West Wing, it didn’t just hurt because it was a shock, it hurt because considering the context of the finale, it was a blow to everybody else and it affected the President’s actions going forward. When Sorkin killed off Simon Donavan (Mark Harmon) in the following season’s finale, it just seemed like he was being cruel to a character people were just starting to cotton to.

I could probably fill a book with some of the most sadistic deaths I’ve seen over the years, so what I’m going to do is make this a series. I’m going to start with five characters for this entry and, when a new group occurs to me, I’ll add more entries. I have no doubt the way TV works I’ll have a lot of examples going forward.

Warning: This column contains spoilers of Lost, Silk Stalkings, NYPD Blue, Chicago Hope and Ally McBeal. Considering how old many of these series are, I’d be shocked if you didn’t know about them, but then I didn’t know most of the ones in Anthony’s column.

Shannon Rutherford, Lost

Not why but when. pintrest.com

Unlike the lion’s share of the deaths in this column, I didn’t have much of a problem with Shannon’s death when it happened in Season 2. And if Lost fans are honest, almost none of them did either.

Of the original cast, Shannon was by far the least sympathetic survivor of Oceanic 815. Every line of dialogue and every action she took seemed to be that of a spoiled brat who really didn’t seem to have anything to offer. Alone among the characters during Season 1, she really seemed to grow the least. Even after her stepbrother Boone died, there still seem to be much sympathy and frankly, most fans were wondering why Sayid, one of the more empathetic characters, fell for her. When we finally got some information into her backstory in Season 2 — and started to feel sympathy — she was killed less than five minutes later.

At the time, it fit the plot — the tail section survivors were bringing those from the raft back to the main group and while it was horrifying, it did seem to fit the story. In all candor, by the time Season 2 was over I don’t think anybody was even thinking of Shannon any more. Why then do I think it was pointless? Because of the finale.

For more than a decade, fans of the series and critics in general have been trying to make sense of whether the finale was genius or whether it completely ruined everything that came before. I’ve watched the series half a dozen times since then and I’m still not sure. The thing that keeps halting me from ‘letting go’ is how Shannon’s involved. The major shift that causes everyone to move on comes whenever they meet their soulmate, someone they met on the island. Sayid’s moment of realization comes not with Nadia, the woman he spent more than a decade hunting for, married when he was rescued, and was destroyed when she died, but Shannon, a woman he knew for little more than a month and was with for a little more than a week. That’s a stumbling block I still can’t get over after more than a decade.

The writers made more than their share of mistakes over the run of Lost. (Three words: Nikki and Paulo.) But if they’d wanted to make the reunion between Shannon and Sayid resonate and not cause fans to go ‘huh?” they should have kept her character alive long enough for it to do so.

Chris Lorenzo, Silk Stalkings

Silk Stalkings was essentially an erotic popcorn drama that ran on USA for more than a decade well before they got into making quality programming. Stephen Cannell was not known for making landmark television, but there were few projects more lightweight then this just a step above soft-core Miami set police procedural. There was, however, one very good reason to stick with it: the electric chemistry between the two leads: Chris (Rob Estes) and Rita (Mitzi Kapture.)

In a series that started every episode with a sex scene followed by a murder, the sparks that flew between these two lifted it above so much of the conventional stilted dialogue and lackluster plots. The world was waiting for the moment these two best friends (who would call each Sam) would realize how much they cared for each — which they did in early season 5. (The scenes that followed, for the record, were among the most erotic I’ve seen on any streaming service).

Both actors were planning to leave the series that season. So you could see the writers setting up a happy ending. Rita got pregnant, they got married…and then, she got kidnapped. Chris rescued her, and got shot, but he seemed to about to survive. Until he died of his wounds.

I repeat: both actors were going to leave the series. So killing Chris off and leaving Rita a pregnant widow seemed not only designed to make the fans miserable, but was utterly out of context with the lightweight tone of the series. It’s been more than a quarter of a century, but I’m willing to believe that millions of people are still incredibly angry about this last twist. I know I am, and I never really liked the show.

Sylvia Costas, NYPD Blue

The bullet killed more than her. pintrest.com

I’ve had many issues with NYPD Blue over the years. The dialogue never sounded like people actually talking (though I had yet to get used to showrunner David Milch’s style of speech, which I now love); the police interrogations always seemed to pale compared to Law & Order or Homicide (and given what we know about the NYPD look particular dated now) and the characters never really appealed to me. But even if you are willing to acknowledge the quality of the writing and acting, there is one thing that even devoted fans agree on: the death of Sylvia, Andy Sipowicz’s wife was the jump-the-shark moment. Even the method was clumsily done; she wasn’t the target of a crazed killer, but the victim of a stray bullet from the father of a victim who just couldn’t believe the man she was prosecuting would see justice.

Now I understand that Sharon Lawrence had gotten offers to work on other series, so killing her off might have been logical. But she had already done so in 1997, when she left to work on the ultimately failed NBC sitcom Fired Up.) Milch had accommodated her by demoting her to a recurring character in 1997 and when the series died, he was more than willing to welcome her back as a regular. Even though she was about appear in the series Ladies Man which would last two years longer, I find it hard to believe that given Milch’s previous accommodation for her, he couldn’t have worked out some kind of arrangement. Hell, when Charlotte Ross got pregnant on the show in Season 11 and her character had just married Sipowicz, the writers were willing to work around it without killing her off. (Granted, we never saw her character again, but still…)

It always seemed like just one more completely unnecessary burden to hand Andy, who by this point had lost his son, suffered prostate cancer and lost his partner. The series never recovered. The following season, the writing process under Milch became so impossible to handle, he ended up resigning afterwards. The following season, the remaining interesting characters were gone and the series would be known only for its continued pressing of what they could get away with on broadcast television. Would all of this have changed had Sylvia stayed alive? Who knows? But it sure as hell made the series a lot harder to enjoy.

Alan Birch, Chicago Hope

Not respect alamy.com

If it’s remembered at all today, it’s as a trivia question: “What was the other Chicago medical drama that premiered against ER?” But that’s unfair because Chicago Hope was always a well-written and extremely well-acted series that really delved into medicine and surgery in a way that few series have before and have few since. Indeed, one of the great what-if in TV history may be how would the series have fared had not head writer David E. Kelley and lead actors Mandy Patinkin and Peter MacNicol not all been gone from the show by Season 2?

It is MacNicol, who played house counsel Alan Birch that I wonder about the most. The only lead cast member who was never a doctor, MacNicol nevertheless provided great emotional drama and lightness as the attorney nicknamed ‘The Eel’. What made his departure gall so much is that up until his final episode near the end of Season 2, Kelley seemed to be putting his character even more front and center. Alan was getting involved in more storylines, he seemed to be heading for a love interest with researcher Diane Grad, and in his penultimate episode as a regular he delivered a defense of the hospital and health care that was one of the most stirring things I’ve heard on television even after thirty years.

What makes it so painful is that I still believe Alan’s character was killed off to explain the departure of Patinkin’s. Patinkin’s work as Jeffrey Geiger was one of the greatest performances he has ever given in a career that has spanned more than four decades and every single medium he has worked on. Even after deservedly winning an Emmy for Best Actor in a Drama in 1995, he had still decided to leave the show. In his final episode, Alan was shot by a gang member, operated on by the staff at the hospital, seemed on the way to recovery, faltered and then died after he was put back on the table. Geiger melted down in the ER, and then went on a ‘leave of absence’ to take care of Alan’s daughter, who he had recently been named godfather. In a sense, MacNicol’s character was killed off to justify Patinkin’s leaving — which, when you consider he kept returning for guest appearances until he returned as a regular in the final season really seems like illogical.

I realize it was a difficult scenario, and maybe there was no way to resolve it well. But though the series had several good seasons for the remainder of its run, Chicago Hope was never the same force it had been. Then again, it’s not like Kelley ever had the softest hand for writing characters out. For example…

Billy Thomas, Ally McBeal

In Kelley’s defense, he’s created some really great series with great actors. In defense of television, Kelley has been just as bad at holding on to a lot of those actors. Indeed, by the time Ally McBeal was in its final season, it was easier to remember who wasn’t still on the series than who was. I’ll be coming back to this in future entries, but for now let’s focus on Billy.

The major storyline the first two seasons of this very erratic series was the triangle between Ally, the love of her life Billy Thomas (Gil Bellows) and his wife Georgia (Courtney Thorne-Smith). In Season 3, the series completely imploded. Billy dyed his hair blond, started acting like a real macho guy, separated from Georgia and basically alienated everybody who’d liked his character the first two years. In January of 2000, it was announced that both Bellows and Thorne-Smith would leave the series at the end of the season.

Near the second half of the season, Billy revealed he had a brain tumor and intended to have surgery. Then in court, he gave a summation in which he invoked the sanctity of marriage…and that he was married to Ally. Then he collapsed and died of an aneurysm. (Then he ended up appearing to Ally as a ghost for the rest of the series… but let’s not go there.)

Basically what we have is a reprise of the Chris-Rita scenario I mentioned in the Silk Stalkings entry. And considering that the writer of this episode was the man who created the mess I listed above, you’d really think he would have known better by now. (Then again at the time, he was basically the head writer of four different series, so maybe he was exhausted?) But he did learn going forward; a few years later, he let two actors who were planning to leave Boston Legal get married and then leave. Of course, there were a whole bunch of other messes on that show…but that’s a story for another article.

I’ll periodically update this article. Let me know if any similar scenarios occur to you, and I may follow up on them going forward.

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.