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Death Becomes Them: The Role of Character Deaths in Television

With so many high-profile series like Lost, Desperate Housewives, and Heroes proving themselves willing to kill off main characters over the last few seasons (and rumors swirling about many a death on upcoming series by the end of the season), it got me thinking about the role of death on television and whether it's still an important tool in the television writer's arsenal of plot devices or an over-hyped gimmick to force viewers to tune in.

The most recent death on television was, of course, the shocking demise of Kal Penn's Dr. Lawrence Kutner on FOX's House earlier this week. In the April 6th episode, entitled "Simple Explanation," Penn's typically levelheaded character commits suicide very unexpectedly and his absence from work prompts two of the series' characters to investigate his whereabouts; they discover his body in his apartment with a gun by his side.

Reactions to the episode have divided both critics and audience alike, with some praising the realism and grace with which it was handled, while others, such as The Chicago Tribune's Maureen Ryan, decried Kutner's suicide as a sort of emotional blackmail. Comparing his death to that of former House character Amber Volakis (Anne Dudek), killed off last season, Ryan wrote, "Everything about the death of Kutner [...] smelled of manipulation. And how about that online "memorial" to Kutner that was advertised at the end of the show? Sigh. It just struck me as cheesy. I have been dissatisfied with House all season, but the death of Lawrence Kutner might just be the coup de grace for this once-great show." (Ouch.)

I turned to some industry insiders about their views on the subject of death on television and asked former Battlestar Galactica and Buffy writer/producer and current Caprica showrunner Jane Espenson about her thoughts on the death of Kutner on House, along with a cable network development executive and a studio current series executive (both of whom asked to remain anonymous for this story).

I asked Espenson about whether writers have overused death as plot device. "Of course the death of a character can be meaningful!" she told me. "Death is a part of life and is perfectly legitimate fodder for drama. It can also be a cheap plot twist. Like almost everything, it's about the execution."

"I loved the House storyline, and thought it was really well done," she continued. "Usually we talk about "earning" a plot development as big as a character death. As a writer, you try to make the death feel surprising, but, in retrospect, unavoidable or logical or necessary. On both Buffy and BSG, we wrote episodes in which characters (Joyce, Dualla) seemed to be recovering from dangerous situations and then succumbed--in the one case to disease, in the other, to despair. Both deaths were chilling and--I believe--earned."

"What House managed to dramatize was the much more difficult unearned-death-because-that-was-the-whole-point," Espenson explained. "It happens--deaths that are impossible to explain happen. And the writers didn't swerve off the road, either--Gregory House's reaction to the death was front and center, as it should be in this kind of show. The episode would still have been legitimate if it had involved a character the audience had never met before, actually. But making it about someone the audience was invested in gave it extra impact--helped us understand the characters' reactions more viscerally. That's what good drama does."

But would the current series executive agree with Espenson? I asked her the same questions about the House suicide and about death on television in general.

"I think it was a really interesting way to do a character death," she said of Kutner's suicide on House. "It wasn't promoted, and its purpose was more about House and his ability to not figure everything out than about the character that died."

"For me, it's not that I'm against killing off characters; I'm against killing off characters as a promotional strategy," continued our forthright studio executive. "It seems that so many series these days use character deaths as a way to pick up viewers or bring back old viewers. I would prefer that network showrunners concentrate on making the best show they can instead of picking which character will die during sweeps. I've seen so many commercials and read so many magazine articles that tout the death of a character before it's going to happen. The most recent example of this is Nicolette Sheridan's character on Desperate Housewives. When you promote a death so much, it completely loses all of the dramatic weight behind it."

So have character deaths lost all emotional impact these days? "I firmly believe that it is still possible to have a character's death mean something," admitted the studio exec. "The element of surprise is always good, but it's the execution that really makes it work for me. I think The Sopranos is a great example. That's a show where the viewer was always expecting a character to die strictly because of the world in which it took place, but it constantly provided jaw-dropping (Ralphie) and gut-wrenching (Big Pussy, Adriana) deaths. They were always done in a way that would result in a very visceral reaction from the audience and that is what makes a character death meaningful."

Our cable development executive was less kind about the subject matter.

I think it is overused," he said of the use of death as a plot device today. "The networks and advertisers want attention. The easiest way to get everyone's attention is to kill someone off. It quickly becomes cliched. From a development perspective, it is incredibly unsettling towards everything else you are working towards."

"The networks are constantly scrambling to keep audience attention and especially today when network viewership at an all time low," he said. "More people than ever are watching TV but they aren't watching network TV. There's a massive disconnect. Why are there such huge plot twists? Why, in 24, is there going to be a nuclear disaster every season? To keep up audience attention. From a network development perspective, there's a need to keep pushing the envelope in order to keep audience interest there... When you're doing a 24-type show, or even House to a certain extent, each episode asks, 'What is this person going to die of?' It speaks to a frustrating model that
[action, medical, etc.] shows like these are so similar that you have to find a way to do it differently each time because the characters aren't evolving. Why aren't they changing? Because they don't want to alienate viewers. Why can't you alienate viewers? Because you don't want to alienate any advertisers."

"We've also reached saturation levels as far as media goes," he went on to say. "Everyone is extremely aware of characters, actors, etc. Remember when Cynthia Watros was on Lost and she got a pilot and then we all knew something was going to happen to Libby on the show? Everyone knew it was going to happen because it was in the trades. And the trades aren't limited to industry readers anymore because everyone can go on to the Variety website and see what's happening with their favorite actors. People are becoming hyper-aware of who is being utilized or not utilized. We are no longer making TV shows in a bubble, for other little bubbles around the country; we're making TV shows for a mass audience that is aware and following all of your footsteps."

And yet that does speak a great deal towards what showrunners David Shore and Katie Jacobs were looking to do with Lawrence Kutner's suicide on show. It was unexpected, it hadn't been announced in the trades or in, say, TV Guide or on the cover of Entertainment Weekly (like Edie's death on Desperate Housewives), and it was shocking.

But, while the storyline may yield some character development down the road, its impetus wasn't story-based but rather that actor Kal Penn wanted to leave the FOX series in order to take a position in the Obama Administration. One can't argue that it was a promotional tool, because it wasn't promoted ahead of time, but was the death strictly for shock value or does it open up the series to explore new themes and stories?

I agree with Espenson that, when a death is "earned," it can be a fantastic storytelling device that potentially offers viewers an emotional wallop to the gut. And I am hopeful that writers can use the unexpected death of a character to further the overall story rather than just sell it as promotional, tune-in gimmick... so long as the media and network promo departments don't spoil it in advance, as they have in the past. (ABC's promos for Lost come to mind.)

Ultimately, death is a huge part of life and shouldn't be abandoned from the writer's toolbox any time soon. But creators and networks need to be aware that character deaths have to be earned above all else and not used as a throwaway storyline to trim the cast or "shock" the audience. Or they run the risk of truly de-sensitizing the audience at large.

What are your thoughts about Lawrence Kutner's death? Are too many series seemingly using character deaths as a promotional tool more than a story-based one? Discuss.


Bella Spruce said…
Thanks for the interesting article, Jace. Some of the most inspired, heartbreaking moments in television have centered around a character's death. Just reading Jane Espenson's mention of Joyce and Dualla's deaths sent shivers down my spine as each of those storylines were so brave and powerful.

It does drive me crazy, though, when a show advertises a death. Knowing SOMEONE WILL DIE! does not enhance my enjoyment. In fact, it ruins it. "Lost" used to be really bad about that. You'd spend an entire episode wondering who was going to die instead of actually paying attention to the story.

So, I'm all for important character deaths but not all the media hype!
joy said…
@Bella Spruce: Agreed - I don't mind when a show kills off a major character (usually better than a recast situation, anyway). But the SOME. ONE. WILL. DIE. hype drives me crazy.

Not that I prefer the "kill a character off with no warning whatsoever" method of shocking me (T:TSCC, I'm looking at you).
Rorri said…
There have been so many great TV deaths that I think it's impossible to say that they're not worthwhile or significant. But, gratuitous deaths for ratings or shock value are really obnoxious.

I don't watch House so I'm not sure which category Kal Penn's character's death falls under. I guess they had to write him off the show somehow and, even if it wasn't entirely successful, I do have to give them credit for not advertising it in advance to boost ratings.
Unknown said…
In my experience, the promotion of a character's death completely dilutes it of any significance or emotional impact. Edie's and Kutner's certainly fall into that category.

On the other hand, when a character dies unexpectedly, such as Buffy's mother or Derek on The Sarah Connor Chronicles, it sticks with me, even (especially?) when--as in those cases--the character's death is so sudden they have no opportunity for last words.
Anonymous said…
Nice article, more thought pieces welcome.

As already covered, using a character death as an advance marketing tool just doesn't work -- if a character's death is already known about it is likely to have very little impact when it happens, and any viewers brought back into the show will probably shrug, unimpressed, and fail to stay with it in subsequent episodes. (Unless, of course, the stats say otherwise, but I doubt it.)

It's not just deaths, but major plot points such as the big reveal at the end of the last season of Lost. We were warned in advance that it would culminate in showing who was in the coffin, so that when it actually happens it feels a little hollow.

The death of a major character is a useful way to keep an audience on its toes about who is and is not safe. Tuning in week in week out we assume that the heroes, whatever jeopardy they find themselves in, will always get themselves out of it, and that's something that needs shaking up every now and again.

ER winding-up gave me cause recently to recall the most memorable episode of its entire run -- when Lucy and Carter are stabbed and Lucy dies, a truly shocking and heartbreaking moment, brilliantly executed. Series six episode 13 if anyone is interested.
wooster182 said…
I, too, have become tired of the "someone will die during Sweeps" hype. It's a torturous game in which we scour through spoilers hoping that it won't be a character we care about. The emotion is gone.

I just can't really compare Kutner's death to Joyce or Dee's. With the latter two deaths, the storylines felt really planned--Joyce's especially. The deaths were random to us, but not random for the writers. It was clear that Joss Whedon knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote The Body.

I think the reason, to me, "Simple Explanation" seemed to fall apart in the second half hour was that Kutner's death wasn't planned. Kal Penn decided to quit so they slapped a death sequence together. I'm sure they had time to figure it out, but it still felt shaky. This did not feel as well planned as the deaths Espenson referred to. Yes, death may be random, but so is writing sometimes, and this writing felt random.
Anonymous said…
Supernatural has gotten a little ridiculous with the deaths - especially considering Sam AND Dean have both died AND come back to life (sadly within one or so episodes. Not exactly a long lasting effect). It doesn't mean anything any more
Unknown said…
Gratuitous character killing is bad. What's worse is bringing them back without rational explanation (Bobby in Dallas getting out of the shower - it was just a dream). I'm sure there have been others.

This tells me that the strategy to kill them off backfired and the writers/producers have somehow convinced themselves that we won't really take mind of the silly re-entry.
CL said…
The last character death that hit me hard recently was Derek Reece's, on The Sarah Connor Chronicles. A random terminator. A random situation. One shot to the head. Boom. Over. I couldn't believe that it happened. Still can't, to tell you the truth. Even after the finale aired.
Unknown said…
Exactly! That's one of the well-done character deaths I mentioned above. It's the same for me, a haunting reminder of how sudden and meaningless death can be. When it's promoted as a ratings gimmick, it loses all impact.

And how 'bout that finale, too! I spent 42 minutes with my mouth open. Wow. I'm afraid Fox will cancel it just to dash my fervent hopes for a third season.

"Will you join us?"
Raked said…
Fantastic article, and I think you make great points. One of my biggest annoyances is when shows kill people off just to do it for shock value. Every death in Buffy and Angel, for example, were purposeful and pushed plot, and I think that has to be key.

Honestly, one show that I thought did it just to bring people in was Ghost Whisperer, since they were advertising like mad about Jim's upcoming death. However, they turned it so that it was a great way to turn the show in a new direction.

I feel like many shows just see death as a way to get rid of an actor, whether they want to leave or not. And that attitude tends to shoot them in the foot, since they can no longer have that person back if the tide were to change.

Love the post. Kudos.
Anonymous said…
It's disingenuous to say that because Kutner's suicide wasn't promoted or even hinted at in advance it wasn't done for publicity and ratings purposes. Immediately after the episode aired and for days after the show promoted the heck out of it happening; conference calls, print and TV interviews. The ratings gain they hope to achieve will happen for the episodes to follow most of which will air during sweeps. Coincidence? No.

The show put more of Kutner's story and his supposed interaction with the other characters on that abomination of a "memorial", at the Fox website, more P.R., than they ever bothered to show in the two years of his appearing on the actual series. After the initial shock it all feels empty and manipulative. No matter Kal Penn's future endeavors the total lack of development of Kutner makes it feel as if he was always going to be a target for this type of stunt.

There is also the feeling with "House" lately that nothing any of the characters do has any explanation; Kutner's suicide being the topper. It allows the show to have the characters behave in any manner that strikes their fancy whether it's sensible or not. Couple that with the writers and show runners fear of the characters growing or changing in ways actually connected to the people we have been shown them to be and it elicits the sensation of wandering aimlessly and never getting very far.
Anonymous said…
Uhhh... it was well known before the episode that someone was going to die on House before the end of the season, that it was a major character, and it would be unexpected. Nearly everyone who knew it was going to happen suspected it would be Kutner, though no one knew how he would die.

I thought the episode was rather silly, to be honest. Sure, the whole point was that the death wasn't "earned" in any way, but it didn't tell us anything about the characters that we didn't already know from the past four seasons. It was boring and pointless.
Anonymous said…
I thought Kutner's death on House worked for exactly the reason Jane Espenson articulated. The death may not have had the typical build up, but that was the point, and the point is one that works dramatically for the show, as we explore the reactions of the characters and works thematically, as suicides do happen in this way. I think the death was very realistically and sensitively handled.
Anonymous said…
Uhhh... it was well known before the episode that someone was going to die on House before the end of the season, that it was a major character, and it would be unexpected. Nearly everyone who knew it was going to happen suspected it would be Kutner, though no one knew how he would die.

Uhh...That a death was pending was not well known by the general audience. Those that frequent online boards about the show and hunt internet spoilers knew, they also knew it would be a suicide. Yes, for that small part of the audience it was also guessed that Kutner would be the chosen one.

Getting feedback from other TV writers and creatives on how "House" handled this story lines is not of much use. It's hard to believe that anyone would openly criticize the work of people who they some day might in fact want to have a chance to work with themselves. It also makes them vulnerable to having their own work; past, present and future receive similar negative criticism and nobody wants that. Particularly if they have or will exploit a similar stunt.
Grant said…
Getting feedback from other TV writers and creatives on how "House" handled this story lines is not of much use.

Why? I found this article very useful. It was great to see how Jane and two TV execs reacted to the storyline and how death is handled on TV. Jane was more positive, one was balanced and the last one was negative about it over all.

I think it is being overused. The same is true w/ comics where people get killed off every issue just to come back to life when the writers need them. You can't do that on TV (unless on soaps.) But writers seem to like to kill off people to SHOCK the audience. It's not "earned" as Jane said in that case.
Anonymous said…
This is what's so frustrating about House. On the one hand, there's that procedural element and structural formula to every show: we get an opening sickness scene (totally cribbed from the 6' Under playbook, btw), two or three mis-diagnoses, House and Cuddy (Cutty? Never actually checked the credits..) Roadrunner/Wile E. Cayote-ing a bit, and a genius diagnosis at the last minute. On the other hand, from season 2 on, the show has made a habit of coloring outside of the lines by firing fellows (seriously, relegating 1/2 of your primaries to supporting roles is pretty ballsy), killing off characters, introducing a P.I. sidekick for a few episodes, etc.

Sometimes it feels genuinely subversive, like the show is toying with the audience's (and maybe FOX's) expectations of a familiar formula. But sometimes it just seems like the writers are sick of writing the same paint by numbers stories every week/scared the audience is tired of it, and is shaking things up just for the heck of it (Or to develop a spin off...).

I'm not sure what side of the line Kutner's suicide falls on, I think that will be revealed in subsequent episodes as we see if the dynamic actually changes, or if Kutner's absence doesn't really make much of a difference and the show just keeps on solving the same cases the same way each week. If House goes off in a new direction, I could see myself looking back at this episode as a bold move for a network drama. If not, I'm pretty sure it'll go down in the books as a lame stunt.
Kate said…
Grant, it might be interesting to get the unabridged opinion of TV writers and creatives but you're not going to find that in a published article. These people work with the writers of House, they're probably friends with them, and they may be going to them for a job in the future. They may be somewhat candid but they're not going to diss people who may be in the position to give them a job down the line.

Alfred Hitchcock said that if you set a bomb off, the audience gets 30 seconds of shock. If you show a bomb on a bus, ticking away the time while the passengers are oblivious to it, you get 5 minutes of suspense.

I agree with Maureen Ryan. Kutner was a badly underused character in a season with far too much Thirteen and Foreman and now the producers are attempting to make a virtue of a necessity by saying that this is a good thing that we knew nothing about him. The emperor is trying to cover up that he has no clothes.

They killed off Amber, they've lost Kutner, and now they're left with a team much inferior to the old one. No matter how much they make House front and center, this isn't good drama.

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