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Television Provides Character Insights That No Other Art Can

Heights Staff

Published: Sunday, November 11, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01

Now that we are well into November, the surefire signs of winter’s approach have begun, including earlier sunsets, first snowfalls, and increased frequency of death on The Walking Dead. Just last week, two characters, one major and one minor, were axed on the zombie drama.

“Wait a second,” that guy who reads my column religiously is shouting. “You already did a column on The Walking Dead a few weeks ago.” To which I say, “Don’t worry, guy! There will be no more Carl talk in this article.” I only mention this character slaughter because it was meant to be heart-wrenching, but I simply didn’t care. The Walking Dead has been fairly awful so far at writing characters that the audience will care about. The only characters I would shed a tear for are Darryl and … well, Darryl’s crossbow is pretty much a character too, right?

This very special episode did, however, get me thinking about death on television in general. Since I was a kid watching Nickelodeon on Saturday mornings, there was tragedy to contend with. I remember watching Hey Arnold! and thinking “Wow, Arnold’s room is awesome, but like, where are his parents?”

As I grew up, every television show I watched seemed to have death in it. M*A*S*H, an old-school comedy my dad encouraged me to watch as a kid, shocked me when Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake, one of the funniest characters on the show, was killed off-screen at the end of the third season, when his character’s plane was shot down on his return home from the war. I couldn’t believe that the writers would axe a character that I had grown so attached to, and being only 11 at the time, it felt like someone who I knew personally had died.

As my tastes in television matured, the number of major deaths per show accelerated. Becoming a fan of 24 isn’t a problem, so long as you don’t mind every beloved character being shot, stabbed, or exploded to death if their name is not Jack Bauer or Chloe. Even more impactful were the deaths of Lost characters. The island-set, genre-and-time-bending drama had a large ensemble—to create new characters, it became a necessity to kiss an older cast member goodbye.

In the past decade, many dramas that critics have pointed to when making the claim that we live in a “Golden Age of Television,” shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones, are famous, in part, because (almost) no character is safe. A character’s death in these shows is often brutal, unexpected, and affecting.

Looking back on any of the above series I have mentioned, I am surprised by how quickly I can recall a death scene, before I can think of any other key scenes in the show. I don’t want to spoil any of these shows, but if you, the reader, think back on some of your favorite dramas, I would be surprised if your mind wasn’t generating memorable last words and moments of grief, too.

To me, this reflection points toward a major advantage that television has over film: the luxury of time to allow characters to develop and grow with the audience. In a film, the audience is introduced to a main character and follows their story for two hours, but at the end, the character’s journey is over and viewers leave and get on with their lives. It’s like reading a short story in that you are rarely able to form a deep attachment with a character due to the time constraint.

Television, especially of the last 10 to 15  years, works differently. We see a character at his/her beginning until the very end. We expect that character to be on our screen each week. When a character is violently torn out of a show, the feeling of loss can be painful because we feel as if we knew that character inside and out, the way we know our own friends.

So I believe that television is possibly the best artistic medium to fully flesh out a character’s story, from life to death. Unless said character is living in a post-apocalyptic future beside Rick Grimes, of course.

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