Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Killing Time

When TV characters say the long goodbye

By Robert David Sullivan

MAY 1, 2000:  It's the killing time on television. No, I'm not talking about the made-for-TV movies, though this year we can look forward to fast-food-sponsored memorials for Jesus Christ and John Denver.

I'm not even talking about weekly series, though a couple dozen of them will expire this spring. This time, there are no high-profile suicides along the lines of Seinfeld, which pulled its own plug while people were still watching, but a few shows are going out with enough residual popularity to ascend into repeat heaven (Beverly Hills 90210, Party of Five, Boy Meets World). There are also a handful of short-lived critical favorites that were abruptly taken off the air and may never surface again -- something akin to the process by which Latin American dictators order troublemakers to be "disappeared." (You can count Freaks and Geeks, Wonderland, and Sports Night in this category, and they may yet be joined by Now and Again.) But most of the season's obituaries will provoke the same shocked response: "My God, I thought they canceled that years ago!" Cosby and Suddenly Susan are in that category, probably to be joined by Veronica's Closet.

No, I'm talking about TV characters who are killed off, either because an actor decides to leave a show or because the producers decide that a guest shot by the Grim Reaper will keep viewers interested. There have been several expirations this spring -- on ER, Ally McBeal, Once and Again, and The Sopranos -- and we'll probably see a couple more before the end of the TV season in May. I doubt that Michael J. Fox's exit from Spin City (on May 24) will involve a death scene, but I have a hunch that John Cullum (playing Mark's cancer-stricken father) was promised a big finish when he joined ER as a semi-regular this season.

During TV's early years, when an actor left a show, his or her character was either recast or simply never referred to again. That changed 25 years ago, when McLean Stevenson left M*A*S*H and the producers decided to kill off the character of Colonel Henry Blake. In his farewell episode, Henry is sent home to his family (awww!), but we learn in the final scene that his plane was shot down by the North Koreans and there were no survivors (bawww!).

"Angry viewers accused us of trying to make them unhappy," M*A*S*H producer Larry Gelbart later told the New York Times, "as if the warranty that came with their [TV] sets promised them only happy moments of viewing."

The death of a long-time acquaintance -- even someone you'd seen only coming out of a cathode-ray tube -- did seem more upsetting in those days. One of my earliest TV memories comes from 1973, when a newscaster announced that comedian Wally Cox had just died, and a couple of hours later I saw Cox making lame jokes on The Hollywood Squares. The weird part, at least by current standards, is that an announcer interrupted the show to answer people who were calling to complain about the station's lack of respect. He said something to the effect that Wally would "want the show to go on," so quit making a big deal about it.

Eventually we did get used to seeing our TV friends, real and fictitious, drop dead in interesting ways. Another landmark series in the annals of TV necrophilia was Hill Street Blues, in the early 1980s. When actor Michael Conrad died, the show's writers took the opportunity to fashion some black comedy by having his character die of a heart attack during sex. A few years later, Hill Street upped the ante by killing a main character on screen: Joe Coffey (Ed Marinaro), who was shot to death in the line of duty. The stray bullet would become a convenient way to get rid of characters, but I haven't seen it used yet this season -- perhaps because the shooting of Sylvia Costas (Sharon Lawrence) on NYPD Blue last year was so damned silly.

In the early '90s, LA Law, the first of several law dramas written or produced by David E. Kelley, displayed an even more irreverent attitude toward death. In one episode, attorney Rosalind Shays (Diana Muldaur) was killed when she fell into an elevator shaft -- and for the rest of the series, every time someone stepped into an elevator, it seemed like a sick joke.

A few years later, Kelley added a new twist to the art of untimely demise. On Chicago Hope, attorney Alan Birch was shot by a mugger, and we saw the hospital staff pull together to save his life. We seemed headed for a happy ending, as Alan regained consciousness and tearfully thanked the other main characters. Unfortunately, this medical miracle didn't change the fact that actor Peter MacNichol wanted out of the series, so Alan's eyes rolled up and he suffered some kind of fatal seizure. Thus, sentimental viewers had the pleasure of seeing a favorite character die twice, and sadistic TV fans got their kicks from watching the character fail in his attempt to cling to life.

ER featured a similar fake-out this spring when Lucy Knight (Kellie Martin) was stabbed by a schizophrenic patient. Given that Martin's character had been coolly received by TV critics and by many of the respondents on Internet fan sites, it couldn't have been a coincidence that she was stabbed while a boombox in another room was blasting the Lo Fidelity Allstars' "Battle Flag," with the lyric "Yes, we aim to please." The ER staff rallied to save both Lucy and John Carter (Noah Wyle), who had also been stabbed but wasn't being played by an actor wanting out of the series. They were rewarded with Lucy's brave little smile as she regained consciousness and croaked out a thank you -- shortly before her eyes rolled up and she suffered some kind of fatal seizure.

A more subtle twist of the knife came on Once and Again, where we saw Lily's father (Paul Mazursky) get into a nasty-looking car accident. It turned out that dad was only slightly injured, and the other characters thanked Providence (as in divine intervention, not the dippy TV series) that they still had him around. But after the next commercial break, he suffered a stroke, and he was dead by the end of the episode. The poor guy was doomed as soon as the producers smelled blood, just like a mouse being batted around by a cat out to kill some time before the next trip to the litter box.

The most surprising death this spring came on Ally McBeal, where yet another David E. Kelley-created lawyer came to a freakish end. This time, it was Billy Thomas (Gil Bellows), who dropped dead of a brain tumor while addressing a jury. The reaction among Ally fans on the Internet was mixed. Some of them, probably fans of Kelley's other shows, applauded the sheer weirdness of the episode. Others, probably Party of Five adherents, felt betrayed. "We are very disappointed and TRULY HOPE that you will consider bringing the character back," wrote one fan, who didn't explain how to pull off such a neat trick. "To make a show interesting and appealing, one doesn't have to kill off great characters like Billy!" Of course, if Billy had really been an interesting character, maybe the actor wouldn't have begged to leave the series.

All the deaths on network series this spring felt a little manipulative, but there were several deaths in the closing episodes of The Sopranos this season, and each had a different effect on the audience. First, there was the shmuck who tried to kill Christopher. When Tony Soprano tracked down and shot the guy, we viewers enjoyed the scene as a nice little bit of cruelty. Just imagine: getting killed after gulping a can of diet soda and then spending eternity with the taste of aspartame in your mouth. This time the victim was young and stupid, and Tony was just cleaning out the gene pool when he popped him. (The guy was an incompetent assassin, but he seemed destined to kill a bunch of people in a drunk-driving accident.) It was a good death scene but not an especially memorable one.

Then Janice (Aida Turturro) took out a gun and killed her fiancé, the quick-tempered Richie Aprile (David Proval). This was an even more satisfying scene, since we had been primed to expect a bad end for Richie ever since he was introduced, at the beginning of the season. The kicker was that his death was not directly related to his plotting against Tony for control of "the family." Instead, he made the fatal mistake of slapping a woman who had inherited Livia Soprano's knack for taking care of herself. It was as if James Cagney had got two bullets in the gut for pushing a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face in The Public Enemy. The Sopranos scene was so unexpected, yet so right, that my roommate -- who usually avoids any TV show with a hint of violence -- screamed "Yes!" with enough force to frighten a hockey fan. I replayed the scene several times on my VCR, and I always smiled at Richie's look of disbelief as Janice pulled the trigger.

I did not smile when "Big Pussy" Bompensiero (Vincent Pastore) was executed, on a boat anchored at sea, by Tony and his crew in the Sopranos season finale. And I didn't want to rewind the videotape to catch the scene again. Once was enough to watch Pussy try to bargain for his life -- lamely suggesting to Tony that he could continue working as an informant for the FBI but feed them "disinformation" about the mob -- and then accept his fate with a plea for Tony not to shoot at his eyes. (On an on-line forum, actor Vincent Pastore explained that Pussy, naive to the end, was hoping for an open-casket funeral.) When Tony, Silvio, and Paulie wrapped their erstwhile friend in plastic and dumped him into the ocean, for a second I felt the way those sensitive M*A*S*H fans felt when Henry Blake's plane fell into the Sea of Japan.

After a second, the paradoxes kicked in. Ever since The Sopranos began, I've been going back and forth between sympathy and revulsion for Tony, and in this episode my feelings changed about every 10 seconds. As for Pussy, he was a murderer himself, not to mention a misogynist and something of a coward. But he wasn't some character who had just been introduced into the series to get killed. He'd been there from the beginning, and it was profoundly disturbing to watch him get killed by other characters who'd been there from the beginning. Because he seemed so real after two years, his death scene tapped into a universal fear of seeing the end coming without being able to stop it. (TV viewers have another fear whenever they watch a major character die: maybe the series won't be as good without him.)

This was a considerable achievement for The Sopranos: making the death of a regular character both entertaining and unsettling, at a time when most series carry out the same assignment with self-conscious attempts at cleverness. My only concern is that it's going to be tough for any series to top Pussy's death. Unless, of course, Martin Sheen ever gets sick of his character on The West Wing. Not even David E. Kelley has been bold enough to shoot the president of the United States on national TV.

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