Spoiler Alert! No Spoilers.
I’m going to talk about television now, but I’m not going to be revealing any spoilers.
Don’t turn the page or close the computer tab or yell, “Shut up!” to the manservant you’ve hired to read these things aloud to you. I hate that I even have to issue this warning, which essentially boils down to “Spoiler Alert: No Spoilers.” These days, when you so much as mention the name of a show, people clap their hands to their ears and blurt out how far they are in a series. “I’m a season behind!” or “I didn’t want last night’s show!” or “I DVR’d it. Don’t say anything!” It’s the opposite of school, where everyone pretended to be caught up when they clearly weren’t. (In college one of my friends earned the nickname “Modern Poetry Gestapo,” and by that I mean I gave him the nickname — he excoriated anyone who hadn’t done the reading.) Imagine if I’d gotten to class and, instead of trying in vain to follow along, had instead yelled, “No spoilers! I haven’t done the reading yet!”) Anyway, these no-spoilers people have made discussing television very difficult, but that is beside the point. What I wanted to talk about in aforementioned no-spoilers fashion is the trend, arguably more of a gimmick, of killing off beloved main characters with very little warning. The first time I saw it, in a faraway land in a show that shall not be named, I was stunned. I’d never before witnessed a show suddenly take out the character you expected all the action to revolve around. I was shaken. There was something so senseless about the death. How could this character be there one day and gone the next, just like that?
As viewers, we’re used to Shakespearian tragedies, Aristotelian tragedies, Greek tragedies — ones that follow some kind of order and, though sad, trigger a catharsis. Or we’re used to soap opera tragedies involving characters we don’t care all that much about. But this was different — this was the death of a character we loved and there was no way out of the pain but to feel it. It was tragic in a way you rarely see on television but experience in life — senseless, brutal, awful and without much meaning.
And for that reason I’d almost argue it had no place on the screen. Fiction is supposed to hold a mirror up to real life, not mirror it. But it felt novel, and hyperreal, and that alone was something. But then I started seeing it in show after show after show.
It’s become something of a bona fide trend. I’ve heard arguments about why TV writers might be relying on this crutch. People are binge-watching, which throws off the pacing. They must go above and beyond to hold viewers’ interest — but I’m more curious why, culturally, this is happening.
What does it say about us that the shows we value are telling us that no one is safe, that death is around every corner and that there are no rules? There was a time when you could be pretty sure the characters you loved at the beginning of a season would be there at the end. Now there are no guarantees.
I’m no psychologist, though I play one on my podcast, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the similarities in the anxiety created by fictional worlds, where no one is safe and people die senselessly, and modern reality, where the fear of terrorism thrums constantly at a very low level in the backs of our brains. Might this body count be a very delayed abstracted reaction to the culture of fear we’ve been negotiating since 9/11? It could also be a response to the emotional cruelty and diminished value of life we see online. What if beloved characters on shows weren’t so much killed as unfriended?
What do you think? Surely you’re familiar, if not as desensitized as I am, to this trend of characters being offed for little reason. Do you think it’s just a TV-writer gambit to hold our attention? Or do you think it speaks to something greater going on? Tweet me your thoughts @alisonrosen. No spoilers! !
HEAR MORE FROM ALISON ROSEN on her podcast, “Alison Rosen Is Your New Best Friend” or on the immensely popular “Adam Carolla Show” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @alisonrosen or visit her website at www.alisonrosen.com.