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Jane Espenson - Death Becomes Them : The Role of Character Deaths in Television

lundi 13 avril 2009, par Webmaster

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.


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