Death tolls on the rise for television dramas

It all starts the same way. The screen fades to black, the credits roll, and you, half catatonic on the couch, breath out the words: “what on earth just happened?” Reality sets in, and then out pour the water-works. Hate to break it to you, but your favorite TV character just died. There are far too many people who know this feeling. It has become unwelcomingly familiar.

Television dramas have gotten into the habit of killing off beloved and popular characters to boost their ratings and keep up the suspense of slow burning story lines.  According to the Hollywood Reporter, “The Walking Dead,” which has earned a reputation for killing off characters in its mid season finales, has grown to reach viewing audiences of close to 20 million. Despite having one of television’s most extensive casts, there are only 6 characters who were present in season one and still alive today.

I used to think that as far as TV went, the main characters were safe from getting the writer’s ax and consequently being cut from the script. However in recent years, television has been playing a whole different ball game. In the season one finale of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” it was made abundantly clear that being the assumed “main character” does not safeguard  your life in TV land. Like “The Walking Dead,” this Emmy winning HBO drama has an extensive cast and makes a habit of killing and adding new characters. The creators of another Emmy winning television drama, “Breaking Bad,” also decided to kill the main character, Walter White (aka Heisenberg), in the series finale.

The rise in drama’s death toll may be explained by America’s favorite pastime: TV binging. The prominence of TV binging, which is on the rise due to viewing platforms like Netflix and Hulu, is increasing competition within the television industry. Shows compete for their viewers’ attention and if the show fails in being 100 percent captivating, it is all too easy for the viewer to watch something else. This is where fictional deaths come in. Now people don’t just watch for the plotline, but because they have to paranoidly keep watch of their favorite characters to make sure they survive the plotline. The paranoia leads to obsession and the obsession gets you hooked, and bingo, they’ve won you over.

My new theory for TV dramas posits that there is a single small group of linchpin characters who may or may not be the main characters, but whom without, the show cannot survive. This would explain how shows can get away with having extensive casts that continue to shift. The theory has been tested a few times this year, with the death of Jon Snow in “Game of Thrones” and the false death of Glenn in “The Walking Dead.” Of course, those who have read the Walking Dead comic book series know that Glenn is not a linchpin character, although he might be one for the show. I thought my theory had been blown out of the water with these deaths, but sure enough, Glenn survived, and Kit Harington, who plays the “Thrones” character has been spotted on the show’s set multiple times in costume since his ‘death’ in the season finale. So in the realm of TV dramas, what the audience is now having to deal with is the emotional torture of not only fictional deaths, but faked fictional deaths…as if we didn’t have enough to worry about already.

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