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January 21 2007

Did Joss Whedon start a killing trend in television? SyFy article wonders if the rescent trend of killing main characters might have been influenced by Joss. "'Lost' star Josh Holloway said that he and the rest of the cast constantly live with the knowledge that no one is untouchable on the show."

I wonder is Joss leading the with the number of main and recurring deaths on his hands.

What main cast and constantly recurring cast has he killed over the years.

Buffy - Angel - Spike - Wesley - Fred - Darla - Cordellia - Anya - Joyce - Doyle - Tara - Wash - Book

Are there any others???

[ edited by RavenU on 2007-01-22 02:04 ]

Uh, how about Jenny Calendar? She was the first "good guy" to go down in "Passion".
It's not a very insightful article. Just because Lost has gone on a killing spree, does not make it "en vogue".

And it's easy to point to Joss and say "murderer", but at least his deaths had resonance. Boone could afford to go, but the fact they killed off Shannon as well - big mistake. The deaths of the tailies were basically gratuitous.
I'm the person who wrote the article. (My real name is Robin Brownfield.) The reason I didn't mention every key character who was killed in the Buffyverse is because the article is primarily about "Lost" and Josh Holloway's recent interview comments. That's also the reason I didn't mention a whole slew of other shows. Too many mentions would be superflous.

[ edited by Nebula1400 on 2007-01-22 02:58 ]
I never called Joss a murder, I just said that he started a trend of killing off main characters. Not many other shows have killed off so many important characters since, but I have noticed that the tolls are rising and not just from Lost.

Oh and I forgot to add Lilah to the list.
You know, I watch all of my favorite TV shows with a degree of fear because I keep thinking that someone will die. The biggest proponent of this is 24.
Actually, in my media studies class last semester I did a project on this topic "TV Trends: Killing Off Main Characters" and used nearly all of those character deaths as examples. I would say yes to that question because Joss' shows paved the way for shows like LOST and 24 to follow in suit. Of course, Joss never used character deaths for ratings like some shows...
Of course, Joss never used character deaths for ratings like some shows...

That is the key difference between his killings and killings on other shows. Killing people on his shows was always a catalyst or organic to the stories that were being told. They weren't publicity stunts.

Also, I'm as versed in the deaths of 'verse characters as anyone here. The story was NOT about the Buffyverse, nor is it a dissertation on deaths of TV characters.
And it's easy to point to Joss and say "murderer"

I absolutely know what you intended that statement to mean, but out of context it sounds pretty funny. 'Ho! You there, tv man! You're under arrest!'
One of the main points I've learned about writing is you have to be willing to "kill your babies". Don't hold back for the sake of your beloved characters -- the story comes first and no one is sacred. Joss pulls this off with style, grace, and necessary jolts.
I always thought that the willingness to kill off major characters for plot necessity was also a brilliant way to maintain discipline on set.

I really could have used this power in my last job...

"I'm a very gentle man, not unlike Gandhi. I don't ever threaten them. There is, sort of hanging over their head, the thing that I could kill them at any moment. But that's really just if they annoy me." -- Joss Whedon, interviewed by Tasha Robinson, for the Onion AV Club, September 5th, 2001
While Joss has been highly influential, I actually think that when it comes to killing of characters on major, highly rated shows (which sadly, Joss's were not) a debt needs to be given to reality TV. A show like Survivor went against the common rules of drama on TV, because a beloved "character" could be eliminated from the show ("killed off" as it were), in the middle of the story so frequently. And sometimes, the bad guy could win! I actually think this did help change some of the rules when it came to scripted series, and what an audience could or could not accept.
There was a TV show a few years back called Made In Canada centered around the conniving and amoral top executives of a Canadian TV/movie production house. In one episode, the executives hatched a scheme to seemingly kill off the entire cast of their hit show Beaver Creek in a season finale cliff-hanger. The main reason was to make it easier to renegotiate the actor's contracts for the next season!

The punch line was
I really think that Joss was the first to start killing off main characters. It may be sad but it is something that, at the time, was very brave. I think it also adds something to the shows Joss creates.
Sure, Joss has had an influence, but there are earlier examples. Babylon 5, anyone? I remember seeing something where writer/creator J. Michael Straczynski was talking about how he used to look around every so often and say "Now, what would happen to the story if we took out this person?" And he would do it. That's only a few years pre-Buffy, so it's easy to see them both as part of a larger trend away from shows where the status quo is preserved in formaldehyde.
I hate to be the nit-picker, but... some of Joss' "deaths" were not quite... dead (?) as the deaths that happen in shows like Lost, etc. In general, I always felt the supernatural and the mystical in Buffy allowed for greater death, and life after death. The two major, not for ratings, heartbreaking deaths on Buffy were Joyce and Tara... because you couldn't see them coming and there was never a question whether or not they were coming back - dead is dead. Angel's first death was the height of melodrama, but I think it was pretty obvious that he could come back at any moment. Buffy did make the ultimate sacrifice, but really we knew she was coming back, just didn't know how. The cast of Angel... was the last episode ('cept for Cordy.) And Wash and Book were in a movie which has pretty different rules than a tv show.

Basically, I think Joss is less groundbreaking that people say he is in the way of killing off major characters. The show of course was amazingly groundbreaking, as was the way he handled death. But I seem to always remember character deaths as pretty standard for tv, mostly as ratings went down. (This coming from the guy who doesn't think Kitty is going to die ;)
What main cast and constantly recurring cast has he killed over the years?
Buffy - Angel - Spike - Wesley - Fred - Darla - Cordellia - Anya - Joyce - Doyle - Tara - Wash - Book
Are there any others???

Jenny and Jonathan

And two random notes:
1) One of the headlines at SyFy: Brent Spiner: Star Trek's Failure Is Fans' Fault , sounds pretty harsh doesn't it?

2) I might not remember it right, but wasn't Marcus the only one who died on Babylon 5?
ETA: Oops. I forgot Sheridan, because he was immidiatly resurrected.

[ edited by the Groosalugg on 2007-01-22 11:09 ]
Blake's 7 people. Sa'll I'm sayin'.
Drusilla and Harmony are the only missing names that spring to mind :S
I never called Joss a murderer

That should be a book title.
he killed the praying mantis. how mean was that! I cried for a week!
Blake's 7 people. Sa'll I'm sayin'.

Word, yo. Everyone dies at the end in a kind of slo-mo 'Wild Bunch' style kill-fest. Except Avon of course, he didn't die, nope, no sirree *fingers in ears* la, la, la, I can't hear you, la, la, la.

One of the biggest downer endings in TV sci-fi and it was shown around Christmas time. Cheers Santa ;).

(also an early example of serialised drama - well ish - with roughly one long continuous plot all the way through)

Oh, and Lindsey (and Angelus. Sort of).
It's always cool to see the writer of the webpage that gets the Whedonesque spotlight make an appearance in here. Kudos.

I can recall a couple decades ago when the writers on MASH killed off Colonel Blake. They didn't have to. They had successfully written the character out of the story. He got on a copter and was on his way home - away from the war. Let the character live out the rest of his life in the minds of the viewers. The guy's death was an epilogue, to bring to sharp relief in the minds of the audience that this may be a comedy but it's about a war. People die. We already knew that. The death was dramatic in the course of that episode, but it was also trite and self-serving in terms of the series as a whole.

Storytelling-wise, possible death of your favorite characters is mandatory. The audience needs to feel their favorite characters are truly mortal, and may not survive the tale. This makes suspense more powerful. James Bond isn't all that suspenseful. You know he's gonna get through it. You just don't know how. That's a different kind of fun, and sometimes it's more of a yawn.

When Joss kills off a character, it serves the story. I can't think of a time when he killed off a major or supporting character and it didn't serve the story.

He coulda killed off Oz. He had to write the character out of the story due to whatever behind the scenes crap was going on. He coulda given Oz a sudden and deliberate dramatic death scene outta nowhere and told Seth Green "go on ya crazy kid git outta here and have a movie career hugs and kisses loves ya bunches" but he didn't. Why? It woulda upset what he had going at the time. He didn't need to kill Oz off at the time. Having Oz leave to go find himself and find a way to deal with the demon inside just made more sense. It served the story better.

I've been watching HEROES recently, and enjoying it I must admit, but the 'deaths' on that show seem superfluous - timed to sweeps or cliffhangers and that's kinda cheesy. Granted, there's always room for cheese. I just think killing off Eden was a cheap shot going into the hiatus, and didn't serve the story at all. The death of Claire essentially showed us that she can't easily die, so now she's got the James Bond cloud hovering over her head.

Joss wasn't the first to be willing to kill off major characters. He was perhaps the first to do it right.
You know, I think what really followed the trend of "worthy deaths" as I'm terming it, is 24. There are no superfluous deaths in that series...everyone who dies is either a bad guy (justified then) or if he or she is a good guy, there is some sacrifice involved or that person dies and spurs a second element to Jack Bauer -- whether it is revenge, or agony or anger. I'd like to name examples but I don't want to spoil anyone who hasn't seen the other seasons, or if they are like me, getting through Season 3 on DVD.
It's always cool to see the writer of the webpage that gets the Whedonesque spotlight make an appearance in here. Kudos.

Just to clarify Zachsmind, Nebula1400's been a (fairly active) member here for ages (though kudos is due for sticking her head above the parapet ;).

Totally disagree about Henry Blake. For me that's one of the most powerful moments from any TV show, ever. Sure, the fact that MASH is set in a war is obvious but every now and then it makes dramatic sense to slam it into the forefront of the viewer's consciousness. That's why MASH was a comedy drama, not just a straight sit-com.

And re: 'Heroes', . Sort of agree about Eden though (assuming things are actually as they seem).
The first death of a major television character I recall in sci-fi/fantasy was on Star Trek: the Next Generation, when Tasha Yar was killed by a big black oil demon in "Skin of Evil." This was in April 1988, before any of the other shows mentioned here ever aired. It was done to accommodate Denise Crosby, who wanted out of her contract to pursue a movie career. (That didn't work out so well.)

Fans didn't take too well toward the killing of her character, with the main criticism being that it was a meaningless death. To appease fans, her character showed up again in "Yesterday's Enterprise, an alternate timeline story that aired in February, 1990 - which preceded Babylon 5 and all the other shows mentioned. In this episode, Tasha Yar volunteers to go back in time to meet a certain death to prevent a war that doomed the Enterprise and the Federation.

So the first time she was killed to let her out of her contract. The second time, her death was central to the story being told. Most main character deaths since have been to let the actors leave to pursue other roles, or because an actor had been fired. Joss was possibly the first one to deliberately plant characters into a show with the intent of making us fall in love with them before he tore our hearts out by killing them.

I could have also included "Dallas" as an example, because back in 1985, Bobby Ewing, was hit by a car and killed in the season seven cliffhanger. Eventually, though, with failing ratings, the show brought him back. The entire eighth season played without him, but in the S8 cliffhanger, Pam wakes up to find Bobby alive and well, taking a shower. It turned out that S8 was just a dream. For the record, I didn't watch this show, because I wasn't interested; however, it was so widely publicized, it was hard to avoid the whole "Bobby gets killed" thing. It just wasn't ever done in those times. Another show from that era that occasionally killed off main characters was "Hill Street Blues." One main character was killed off, because the actor actually died; but others - such as the killing of Joe Coffey - were killed to tell a good story.

The reason I chose the bring in Buffy and Star Trek were they were the first sci-fi/fantasy genre shows to kill major characters. "Lost" is possibly in the lead for killing main characters in current mainstream network shows. I do think that they are guilty of using it as a gimmick for boosting ratings and/or letting actors go, because as far as the storytelling goes, none of the deaths seem to have much purpose. I'm hoping I'm wrong, and we'll see a purpose to the deaths in the end, but knowing how "Alias" always fell short on the whole Rambaldi story line, I am skeptical.

The deaths of characters in the Joss 'verse were always catalysts for compelling stories - and you could clearly see the cause-effect relationships as they were happening. Willow goes all dark and homicidal because of Tara's death. Giles and especially Xander push Buffy into killing Angel/Angelus, primarily because he killed Jenny Calendar. The death of Joy was a way to emphasize the utter isolation and loneliness that the slayer has to live with, especially when stripped of her most important family tie. Anya's death (and the death of Wash ) immediately drove home the senselessness of war, and how people we love can so easily be its casualties. We felt their deaths, and grieved for them.

I could go on, but I have work to do and people to kill.

I didn't say that..

ETA: How could I have forgotten Henry's death on MASH? My son has been watching non-stop MASH since I gave him the box set of the series for Christmas. Henry's death occurred in 1976, which preceded everything above. It also had a purpose. MASH was a purposeful anti-war show. They killed off a beloved character to exemplify the tragic toll of war. MASH was a groundbreaking show, and many great shows since have taken their cue from it.

[ edited by Nebula1400 on 2007-01-22 20:37 ]
I add Jesse to that list. (Remember him? The could-have-been-a-Scooby-if-only-he-hadn't-been-bit?)

I think that his death in "Welcome to the Hellmouth" (BtVS, Season one, ep one) is a major arguement for Joss as a leader in the "no-one's safe" element of contemporary TV drama. He was making an immediate point that in the world he'd created there were going to be consequences, good wouldn't always win, and that by caring about the characters, we were running a risk.

That, of course, just made everything so much better. *loves on Joss*

[ edited by merrily on 2007-01-22 21:06 ]
I add Jesse to that list. (Remember him? The could-have-been-a-Scooby-if-only-he-hadn't-been-bit?)

I'm sure I read somewhere that Joss wanted to put Jesse into the opening titles (to make the point that no-one's safe) but couldn't due to budget constraints. So, he added Tara to the titles the episode she died instead.

(Though by then, it was a moot point.)
I think one of the main differences between the deaths that came before Joss is that Joss was not killing characters off because the actor was leaving the show. I would say that instead, the actor left the show because the character was killed off, but we know that that was rarely the case either. ;-)

If anyone doubts that Joss did not kill characters lightly, the Seth Green/Oz example mentioned above of what he did when an actor did want to leave the show should add some credence to the claim. Joss was not ready for Willow to lose someone that close to her to death yet, so Oz lived and Tara was born.

Side note on MASH: They were also smart in making sure not to cheapen Henry Blake's death by taking the opportunity to kill off another character, Trapper John, when the actor surprised everyone by choosing not to come back after that same season. I remember the actor in question laughingly saying that they killed Henry Blake when the actor was leaving on good terms, what are they likely to do to my character sincwe I left on such bad terms.

As was fitting, they had him disappear. He got his discharge papers and went home without saying good bye while Hawkeye was on leave or something. Hawkeye spent the first episode of the season frantically trying to catch him to say good bye before he got on the transport home...which the audience knew would be all that more important to him since Col Blake had just died on his transport home.

I loved MASH.
"So, he added Tara to the titles the episode she died instead.

No, they did that to honor Amber Benson, and to up the pain. And also, under SAG rules, someone listed in the credits gets more money.
The first death of a major television character I recall in sci-fi/fantasy was on Star Trek: the Next Generation, when Tasha Yar was killed by a big black oil demon in "Skin of Evil." This was in April 1988, before any of the other shows mentioned here ever aired.

Nebula1400, I realise it's probably somewhat off the radar being a UK show but "Blake's 7", which I and others mentioned above and which ran from 1978 to 1981 deserves its props. The premise - a bunch of criminals and misfits on the run from an authoritarian regime - might even sound familiar to some here ;).

As that Wikipedia article mentions it had cliffhanger 'season' endings, it had a serialised story, it had character deaths and the distinct feel that no-one was safe (even, sometimes, from each other, since these were criminals who sometimes actually acted like it). Of course, being a BBC show it also had a budget of about 20 pence, wobbly sets, props apparently made from curling tongs, some incredible scenery chewing by theatre trained actors who didn't seem to realise you have to act down a bit for TV and a 4th 'season' which should never have happened (except for the aforementioned incredibly bleak ending). Still, it really was a groundbreaking show in many respects.

And since we're (OK, i'm ;) talking UK sci-fi, it's worth mentioning the granddaddy of them all 'Doctor Who' (first broadcast in 1963) which, of course, had at least one major character death every few years i.e. The Doctor himself (and even though you knew he'd be back, it still hurt because you also knew he'd be slightly different as a character and totally different in appearance).

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