Thursday, June 01, 2006

It's now okay to kill actors

Hello from Tiburon, Ca where I’m on a writing assignment for a few days. Charm is everywhere but the internet is nowhere. For my money, that’s too great a price to pay for charm. Where’s a goddamn Starbucks when you need it?? Anyway, posts will still be coming…somehow. Chloe O’Brien would hate it up here.

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There’s one trend in television that as a writer I’m all for in a big way. Killing off main characters. Among the casualties this season are Denny from GREY’S ANATOMY, Shannon and the DUI twins from LOST, Tony, Michelle, President Palmer and (sniff) Edgar from 24, and of course Kenny gets killed every week on SOUTH PARK. The cast of the SOPRANOS is quoted as saying they hold their breath every table reading.

What this means for an audience is that in dramas jeopardy suddenly becomes real. Used to be when Peggy Lipton got in trouble you knew she’d get out of it. The best you could hope for is that they made her take her clothes off first. But now, anyone other than Jack Bauer is fair game (and even that may change in the series finale).

When a main character dies fans of the show are now sad, usually for a day, maybe two if they don’t have lives themselves. We’re now so used to series regulars being whacked, people voted off islands, fired, or told they can no longer sing “On Broadway” on national television that the impact is lessened. The downside of this practice is you begin to protect yourself by not investing too much emotion in the characters going in for fear that they’ll be taken away. (although I don’t think that was a problem for Paris Bennett or Amarosa.)

None of the current deaths will ever have the wallop that MASH killing off Henry Blake did. The entire country was stunned, and in many cases, outraged. But it also made a point. This was a show about war and in war people die, even the people you care about. For my money that one episode (written by Jim Frizzell & Everett Greenbaum, produced by Larry Gelbart & Gene Reynolds) turned MASH into a classic. It was groundbreaking, shocking, and people forget -- very funny for the first 27 minutes.

Killing main characters does keep the viewing audience on edge. But even better, for writers, it keeps the ACTORS on edge. Finally, some leverage over idiotic ticky tack actor notes, diva tantrums, forgetting lines, keeping a whole company waiting twenty minutes while the co-star is on the phone to another co-star across town who’s keeping that company waiting. No more will staff writers ever hear: “I don’t think my character would say that.” Gone are the days when scenes must be rewritten because a certain star doesn’t think he’s “likable enough” in them. It’s a beautiful thing. And kinda fun to play God.

Now if we can just find a way to kill executives.

24 comments:

thethirdcoast said...

Ken,

If you like Mexican food, check out Guaymas while you're in Tiburon. It's by the ferry landing, if memory serves.

Just wanted to say I love your blog. I'm currently studying comedy writing at the Second City in Chicago and I'm in awe of your experience, and grateful you're so generous in sharing it with fledgling writers and others.

odocoileus said...

Killing main characters does keep the viewing audience on edge. But even better, for writers, it keeps the ACTORS on edge. Finally, some leverage over idiotic ticky tack actor notes, diva tantrums, forgetting lines, keeping a whole company waiting twenty minutes while the co-star is on the phone to another co-star across town who’s keeping that company waiting. No more will staff writers ever hear: “I don’t think my character would say that.” Gone are the days when scenes must be rewritten because a certain star doesn’t think he’s “likable enough” in them. It’s a beautiful thing.

You ain't kidding.

One more weapon for the much abused AD's and base camp PA's."Maybe you should get here on time next week, I heard they're looking to kill somebody off."

All films schools should teach a class called "Making Actors Behave".

eboydowen said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
eboydowen said...

*One more weapon for the much abused AD's and base camp PA's."Maybe you should get here on time next week, I heard they're looking to kill somebody off."*

I was working as a PA on a show where main characters die all the time. The AD's would make constant jokes over the walkie talkies begging for the writers to kill certain characters. One of the actors overheard this on the 2nd2nd's walkie and threw a complete shitfit, refused to work. The producers had to come to set to calm the actor down and assure him that his character wouldn't be killed off.

And he wasn't killed off.

Until the following season.

Anonymous said...

I remember when that Henry Blake episode first aired and some had the opinion that the show was "doomed". And then Radar left. Trapper. Frank...And the show kept going wonderfully.

Ken. Is it true or was it lore that the announcement of Blakes death to the cast was a surprise and everyone stayed in character..

Love your blog.

Mark

Kelly J. Compeau said...

Killing off beloved characters is risky. With the Internet being the way it is today, fans can crucify you and launch a hate-mail/boycotting campaign that might result in plummeting ratings and eventual cancellation.

I'm developing a TV series right now that will see the demise of both a lead character and a recurring character within the first two years of an expected four-year run. I know the fans are going freak out all over me because of it, too, so I'm a little worried about how I'm going to handle the ensuing shit storm.

Anonymous said...

Ken, small correction: It was Everett Greenbaum.

Beth Ciotta said...

Just have to comment on killing off Henry Blake. I remember that episode well. I sobbed. The thing I have always admired about M*A*S*H is how it had you in stitches one minute, and in tears the next. Excellent writing, acting, and direction. A classic.

Anonymous said...

What was your take on the Save MV campaign when they killed off Michael Vartan's character on Alias? ABC probably doesn't feel so great about killing off long-standing main characters after that little debacle ;)

poor man said...

Ken, I've long been delighted by your yarns as everyone else here, but really now. Why resort to stereotypes and pick on actors? That's easy, lowest-common-denominator comedy. That's worse than "According to Jim", "Three and a Half Men" or "That 70's Show" comedy for cryin' out loud. (hee hee)

ADs and PAs (or moreoften the entire production) are soooo burdened by the childish actions of actors; blah, blah, blah.

Yes, actors are idiots. As an AD I've had the pleasure to babysit a few of them on shoots. And yes, ADs are socially inept, Napoleon-complex freaks of anal retentiveness. I've had the opportunity to be an actor on their sets. The common truth to both groups is that these people weren't very good at their jobs. Yet whether they act, write, gaff or grip, they somehow have been able to build up enough goodwill from the people with the money to keep on working.

And everyone's an ass when enough money's involved. Except editors.

Like baseball, there are so many willing and able players in the minors; people you've never heard of who show up on time, and come ready to play. But we keep giving the ball to Darryl Strawberry.

Oh, and to Odocoileus: get over your "Making Actors Behave" film school class idea, and hire better actors.

To sum up: death to main characters and executives!

Anonymous said...

Well, on the plus side, Michelle Rodriguez won't be back next year on LOST.

odocoileus said...

Didn't mean to sound bitter.

Actually, I love actors, always have, since university theatre. Nobody tunes in every week to spend time with grips or DP's. They tune in to spend time with the happy shiny people who do and say the things we writers tell them to.

Day player actors are almost always well behaved. In fact, they're so happy to get a gig and take a break from clerking at Borders, they can be a little too nice.

The fun starts when they know they're in, particularly when they've gone from nobodies to minor stars in a short time.

And the best AD's I worked with had mad social skills. They were slicker than the slickest used car salesman and politician rolled into one.

poor man said...

True that, Odocoileus. (Pericles: Act IV, Sc 3)

Didn't mean to come off bitter myself. The actors I've chaperoned were C & D list. All thought they were A plusses. And the amazing thing is - they continue to work! Most of the 1st ADs I've worked with are like you say: slick, quick and they get the job done. It's the 2nds and 2nd 2nds that scare me.

John said...

I believe Danny Thomas was the first person to kill off an actor/actress in a sitcom, when he offed Jean Hagen in 1956 when she decided to leave "Make Room for Daddy". No on-screen death here -- she just was dead when the show came back in the fall of '56, and Thomas spent that season as a widower before meeting up with Majorie Reynolds and then marrying her to start the 1957-58 season.

Cafrine said...

On the Henry Blake death:

I was maybe seven or eight when I first saw this episode on rerun, and I cried myself to sleep, and all through school the next day. It hadn't occured to me yet that character's could die. It's still one of my strongest memory: the death of Henry Blake.

doggans said...

Although I wasn't born yet when "M*A*S*H" originally aired (I feel so young) I still cry when I watch the episode with Henry's death. It's so powerful, because Henry was such a great character. He could come off as a lovable doofus, but he had a serious side. After three seasons of getting to know and love him as more than just an obnoxious authority figure who got in the way of Hawkeye and Trapper's hijinks, the thought of him dying was almost as bad as a real acquaintance dying.

The only other television (or at least the only other sitcom) death that affected me that much was Bill McNeal on "NewsRadio", mainly because it came from Phil Hartman's real death.

Bill Cunningham said...

"It's now okay to kill actors"

Hmmmm...

Now I have something to do over the weekend.

Mike McCann said...

The issue didn't just used to be killing off characters, but having shows reach a conclusion? Isn't it true that THE FUGITIVE never did well in syndication because Kimball found the one-armed-man and was exonerated in the climactic episode? (After all, once the audience knew he got off, what was the purpose of watching fight for his rights all over again?) Fact or urban myth that THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW did less well after its network run, again, because all the loose ends were tied up in that final half-hour?

Of course, SEINFELD and CHEERS have had little problem in re-run heaven. Neither did MASH.

Then again, look at how I LOVE LUCY evolved. At the beginning of the series, Ricky Riccardo was a struggling entertainer in New York clubs, living in a walk up apartment in Manhattan. Within six years, they'd achieved the post-WW 2 American dream. They'd moved out to the suburbs, with a gorgeous house (with guest house!!) in ritzy Westport, Connecticut, had a kid, and bought a nice car. Oh, one thing more, Ricky didn't work in a club -- he now owned it!

Is there a tried-and-true theory about making such permanent change to an ongoing series? Or is it easier to remain frozen in a loop of time as the ('50s) HONEYMOONERS were and, save for the birth (and adoption) of kids, so were THE FLINTSTONES?

They now teach college courses about this, don't they?

floretbroccoli said...

Before the death of Henry Blake, I remember Upstairs, Downstairs killing off Lady Marjorie Bellamy. They sent her to her doom on the Titanic, no less!

Emily Blake said...

In my mind, no show has ever mastered killing off characters and make it have a real impact like BUFFY. When I watch the season five finale where Buffy sacrifices herself, I still cry even though I know she'll be back.

That show also embraced the sudden, unexpected death that lasts two seconds and characters don't get a chance to say goodbye kind of death. Like Anya and Tara. I love that kind of death. In the real world, characters don't always get chance to say goodbye.

Of course then there was the episode "The Body" about the death of Buffy's mom. One of the best episodes of television ever.

Clearly I'm obsessed with BUFFY...

Toby said...

My Holy Grail when it comes to character deaths is that of 'Nichols', the character James Garner played for one season back in the early seventies. I missed the season finale due to something at high school and came home to find out Nichols had been gunned down.... only to have his twin brother ride into town for the next season's revenge.

And this was all before VCRs....

As to your dream about killing executives, Morley Safer said once that TV executives should be nibbled to death by ducks.

works for me......

VP19 said...

Fact or urban myth that THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW did less well after its network run, again, because all the loose ends were tied up in that final half-hour?

"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" did reasonably well in syndication for several years, only running out of steam in the mid-eighties, par for the course for a syndicated sitcom. In some markets, such as New York, it ran on late night for several years (after Carson and Snyder/Letterman), developing a core of fans among night owls. In fact, when WNBC-TV dumped "MTM" reruns to move Toni Tennille's faltering afternoon talk show to 1:30 a.m., the protests were such that Mary regained her old slot after a few weeks and Toni was bumped further back in the night.

Anonymous said...

I don't think there's any hard-and-fast rule about changes extending the life of a sitcom. When they're done well and seem organic - "Cheers" and "I Love Lucy" come to mind - they extend the life of the show. "Lucy" shifted locales several times (Hollywood, Europe, Connecticut) and got a lot of story mileage out of it - it just seemed natural that Ricky would try his luck in Hollywood, or that the Ricardos would eventually move to the suburbs after having a kid. "Cheers" never would have lasted 11 years with no cast changes - it simply would have run out of gas. On the other hand, poorly-executed, inorganic changes will kill a show quickly (think "Designing Women").

Pianista en un Burdel said...

A spanish translation of this post is available in Pianista en un Burdel.
Thanks a lot, Ken.