I am mainly talking about television here because television shows are bound by certain rules that do not apply to movies and books. In a movie or a book, unless it's a very light-hearted story, you most certainly do worry about the characters because you never know what might happen. But on television...well, that's a different thing altogether. Let me explain what I mean.
A Look Back
While I do watch my fair share of reruns, I do not pretend to know the origin of the TV action series. All I know are the shows that I have sampled over the years. If you have watched some of the same shows, or even different shows of the same genre, then you will surely have noticed the "rules" that these shows play by.
Let's start with CHiPs, since it's a show that most people have at least heard of. It's a cop show, which means that the main characters frequently find themselves in some really intense situations, but never once does the audience really worry that something bad might happen to Ponch and Jon. Why? Because they are the main characters of the show, and it would not be the same without them. Even as they enter into a potentially life-threatening situation, the audience can stay relaxed and happy in the knowledge that they're not going to die. How could they?
Moving forward a couple of years, we have McGyver. Ahh...McGyver. If ever there was an embodiment of 80s cheese in all of its big-haired glory, that show would be it. My husband and I tried to binge-watch this show when it was released on DVD a few years ago. He had warm memories of watching it as a kid and wanted to relive that time. Now, maybe as a once a week treat the show was good, but to get the DVD and try to watch more than one episode at a time...no. We quickly grew bored with the same old storyline being used over and over again...just in a different country with different characters and a new bad guy. We were hungry for some real drama, and McGyver did not deliver. And once again there was the constant assurance that nothing truly bad could ever happen to the main character because...well...the show was named after him, so he could not possibly die.
I had high hopes for Miami Vice when I watched the pilot (also on DVD...I wasn't interested in cop shows in the 80s). Even though it was another 80s action show, the first episode promised something different. The main character was a scruffy cop with a five o'clock shadow who was going through some serious family drama. The storyline involving Crockett's wife and son interested me right away, because it gave this seemingly tough character a softer side that I felt I could identify with. Unfortunately, it was not to last. Now I don't remember which particular episode it is, but at some point, not very far at all into the first season, everything changes. First of all, Crockett's image changes. There's a scene in which he's going to court and has to shave. The stubble never comes back. Now don't get me wrong, I like the look of a clean-shaven man. I just didn't like it in this show because I could tell what they were doing. They were making him look more like the sexy star of an action show, and in the process, they took away some of his vulnerability. Then of course an episode or so later the wife and son move away. Why? I'm guessing because it was an 80s cop show and all of that family drama just didn't fit. I could be wrong, but that was the impression I got when I watched it. And it really diminished the show in my eyes.
Different Kinds of Shows
I am, of course, aware that there have been shows where anything could happen to any character at any time. Soap operas are, I guess, the earliest example of that. Then at some point that level of drama began to creep into evening programs as well. St. Elsewhere is a prime example. Then of course in the 90s we had ER. Because these two shows featured an ensemble cast, there was no need to preserve the hero's life at all costs. There was no single hero, and so characters could die. This is good, right? It gives audiences the level of emotional involvement that they've been craving, allowing each episode to deliver a much-needed catharsis. Well, yes and no. I don't know about anyone else, but for me at least it loses its effectiveness after a while. Think about it. You get really interested in a character. You know that character could die any minute, so your level of emotional investment shoots up exponentially. Then that character dies. What do you do now? Your favorite character is gone from your favorite show. Do you keep watching, hoping that some new character will capture your heart the way the dearly departed one did? Do you even let yourself fall as hard for another character, or do you now maintain a level of detachment because you know what might happen? There have been some shows in which I felt the writers themselves were remaining detached from the emotional lives of the characters. People die, the cast mourns for an hour or so, and then it's back to business as usual. If anyone is still feeling bad about the death in the following episode, it's not shown. That character is left to grieve away from the cameras. You know it's happening, but you don't get to see it. You don't get to grieve with them.
Trying to Capture the Best of Both Worlds
I know of at least one show that has attempted to play both sides. It has its principal characters, and you know they aren't going away any time soon, and yet they still die. I'm talking, of course, about Supernatural. Warning: unlike my previous post in which I discussed this show, I will be including some spoilers today. If you don't want that, stop reading now. If you are a fan of Supernatural, then you know that the many deaths of Sam and Dean have become a joke on the show, to the point where fans almost expect it to happen. But let's go back to the first one, shall we? Remember Sam's death at the end of season two? Remember how intense it was? It was so effective because it was not something that was supposed to happen on a show like this. People could drop dead all around them, but Sam and Dean were supposed to be safe. Season two, therefore, came as a real shock to everyone. Of course, Sam comes back in the very next episode. And then Dean dies at the end of season three, and comes back in season four. Then Sam goes to hell in season five and...well... you get the picture. It happened so much that they started making jokes about it on the show. And then fans would flock to online forums and talk about how the Winchesters had died so many times that if it ever happened again it would just be stupid. The writers would never be able to pull it off. But then comes season nine and Dean dies...again. Was it effective? I think it was. Why? Because it had become such a joke on the show that the audience was lulled into thinking that Sam and Dean were safe. They certainly weren't going to die another time. And yet...season nine. Of course by this point everyone knows this isn't the end. He's going to come back. But somehow that doesn't diminish the drama of watching him die.
Have Any Shows Truly Gotten It Right?
This is just my opinion, and people may disagree, but I think Breaking Bad is one show that managed to do it correctly. You probably think I'm talking about Walt and his cancer, but I'm not. I'm talking about Jesse. This is another show that my husband and I binge-watched after the fact. (I know...I have a tendency to discover shows after they've already gone off the air.) The first time I thought the words "poor Jesse" to myself was way back in the first season, and I was reacting to Walt constantly treating him like he's a complete idiot. Of course he was a bit of a bumbling idiot in season one, but just the same Walt came across as being a little too cruel. Half-way through season two I had come to the conclusion that those words pretty much summed up the whole show. But it only gets worse. And just when you think Jesse could not possibly be brought down any more, it gets worse again. By the final season your heart bleeds for the poor guy, and you really have no idea what is going to happen to him. For this and many other reasons, Breaking Bad will go down in history as one of the best-written shows I have ever seen.
What about you? Do you feel the same need to worry about your characters that I feel? Or do you like your shows a little on the lighter side? Do you have other examples of shows that have gotten it right? If you do, I would love to read about it in the comments.
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