There's a theory that television characters never die. Somewhere in cable land, 19 years after Lucille Ball's death, Lucy Ricardo still stomps on grapes in a labour-intensive Italian vineyard. And in 2055, when the Seinfeld series has grown as old as I Love Lucy is now, George Costanza will still be publicly loathing himself, still with good reason. Stardom in TV comedy provides a worldly immortality.
But for characters in TV drama, death remains as inescapable as it is for you and me. In the history of fiction it's a peculiar form of death, based on the powerful intimacy that TV encourages, an intimacy that admits major characters into the imaginative life of viewers with the force of family members.
Writers try to make characters lovable, and in response we give them something that at least resembles love. Then they die. The program gets cancelled, producers refuse to meet the salary demands of actors or the actors leave TV to try the movies. We speak of these changes cynically, but maybe our cynicism covers losses that aren't easy to deal with. We may find ourselves stumbling through the five stages of grief famously identified by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.
I still mourn Detective Francis Xavier (Frank) Pembleton of Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1998), that tough, brooding, moralist, a Roman Catholic bearing the names of two saints, a serious Christian in an evil world, played by a great TV actor, Andre Braugher. I feel the same way about the most powerful character on NYPD Blue, Detective Bobby Simone (1994-2004), played by Jimmy Smits. He was like a Raymond Chandler creation, a man of action wrapped in an invisible cloak of decency that protected him from falling into meanness or vindictiveness.
Then, one sad day, Bobby's diseased heart stopped beating. That left viewers as despondent as his fellow detectives. It doesn't matter that Smits asked to be written out of the story. The fact is that I spent 91 hours with Bobby, the equivalent of more than 11 working days. I knew him well, as Hamlet says of Yorick--better than I know some friends of mine. Pembleton, whom I knew even better, died with the series after 98 enriching hours in my living room.
A subject seldom discussed and little understood, death on dramatic TV dismays audiences because the characters are so intensely designed, their emotions so well articulated. They differ fundamentally from actual humans in one fundamental: Nothing meaningless happens to them.
Their every little mistake signifies something about the story.
Their conflicts aren't boring or repetitive, so they escape the large swaths of emptiness that afflict actual life. No wonder the death of such characters moves us.
TV, of course, did not invent either emotional connections with mass audiences or grief over fictional death. Radio serials had a similar effect, and so did comic strips. In 1933, when Little Orphan Annie and her dog Sandy were in deep trouble, Henry Ford sent a wire to the cartoonist, Harold Gray, begging him to "do all you can to help Annie." Much earlier, in 1841, the death of beautiful, virtuous Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop produced mass sorrow, given extra force by the fact that the Dickens novel appeared as a series with 88 weekly parts.
But television burrows deeper into the mass psyche than any earlier form. The combination of clever scripts, powerful photography and weekly (or even daily) frequency makes for exceptionally tight bonds. The fact that the stories pour into our homes adds to their power. So does the way we watch them, often as couples or two-generation families. People follow the plot twists and discuss them. Feelings on the screen mix in unpredictable ways with the realities of family life. And series dramas sometimes run so long that we unconsciously expect them to run forever.
Alice Munro's The Bear Came Over the Mountain (the basis of Sarah Polley's film, Away from Her), catches this companionable use of TV in a passage about Grant and Fiona, the married couple at the core of the story: "They had slid into an infatuation with an English comedy about life in a department store and had watched so many reruns that they knew the dialogue by heart. They mourned the disappearance of actors who died in real life or went off to other jobs."
Soap operas, with their passionate loyalists, are a special problem. One time a woman told an entertainment editor she was heartsick at the cancellation of her favourite soap. He suggested she find another, but she couldn't do that: "I'm too old to start again." In the current Writers Guild strike, soap operas may suffer worst. They eat five scripts a week and can't resort to reruns. When the strike began, some soap producers claimed they had enough scripts to last well into January, but by now they are probably hiring non-union writers to collaborate with the executive producers, most of them ex-writers forced back to their computers.
In a strike, union and nonunion (i.e., scab) workers quickly become fierce enemies. In 1988, during the last long Guild strike, non-union writers who worked on soap operas developed a nasty, aggressive habit: They callously killed off characters and distorted plots.
Last week, a piece in The New Republic reported on the agony this caused a woman who was in charge of the scripts on a soap in 1988. Her own life was disrupted by the strike, but when she returned to the office, she discovered the lives of her characters were being destroyed: "She had carefully planned that Fred would divorce Jessica and find true love with Heather, whom he'd gotten pregnant. The scabs had Heather try to murder Fred, reveal it was Pete's baby she was carrying and run off with Sidney." It took the Guild writers months to restore emotional logic to the story.
This week, a viewer writing to a fan blog expressed his still burning anger that the 1988 scabs killed Jesse Hubbard of All My Children. What made it tragic was that the Guild writers had planned to give Jesse a long-running storyline. We can only hope that current tensions will not rise to that level and characters will be able to slip quickly and easily back into our lives.