“Who shot J.R?”
Those three simple words, over forty years ago, were on the lips of almost every American. No, J.R wasn’t yet another president to meet a less than peaceful end, nor a celebrity caught up in sort of pre-OJ, larger than life downfall. J.R was one of the principal characters on a show called ‘Dallas’, who, after being shot in the previous year’s finale, attracted an audience of 83 million, glued to their CRT televisions.
J.R’s possible demise was something of a cultural event. Media outlets drummed up an advertiser’s proverbial perfect storm. Newspaper pieces, television interviews, commercial adds; press surrounding J.R’s shooting had easily surpassed that of an living person, save for maybe that of the, aforementioned, ill-fated presidents.
83 Million people tuned into the cosmically hyped, epic conclusion; and to put that in perspective, that is an audience well over a third of the entire population of the time, and would have accounted for our little convict nation five times over.
Fast forward those short forty years, and a lot has changed, especially on our television. The almost laughably melodramatic soaps like Dallas have fallen to the wayside, banished to the depths of daytime television. In their place, gritty, violent dramas such as ‘The Walking Dead’, ‘Game of Thrones’, and the like have taken to the podium as the most talked about shows on television.
Most of us – dare I say all of us, were a distant, distant idea when poor J.R meet the business end of a Smith & Wesson. But do you remember where you were on the 12th of June, 2011? I do. I was perusing the web when I came across the headline. At the time, as the show was yet to makes it impact here, across the pond, it meant very little, yet It was clear that it had sent the internet into a tailspin. Ned Stark was Dead!
A lot of you may feel quite nostalgic. Ned Stark. It’s a name that conjures up the sort of feeling akin to remembering a childhood pet. But just like poor Snowballs, Ned has become a thing of the past. Game of Thrones is well into its sixth season. While it has been an extraordinary return to form for the show, it has, along with its contemporaries like ‘The Walking Dead’, ‘The Americans’, etc., made one thing abundantly clear. No one cares about death anymore.
There is an inherent danger when it comes to killing off characters in a television series. Look at a show like ‘N.C.I.S’, for example. Each week follows the same archetype established early on in the show’s life span. There’s a body, they interview witnesses, address the victim; this character banters with that character, the same character flaws pointed out as they are every week. Sometimes there’s a modicum of danger, but usually you can rest assured that no one is going to die. Why? Cause that would change the formula, and that could prove hazardous. Each week, viewers tune in knowing what they expect to see. They expect to see their usual characters doing their usual things.
But as TV has moved away from procedural shows like ‘N.C.I.S’ and ‘E.R’, and further toward serialised shows such as ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘Mr Robot’, and even shows like Silicon Valley – serialisation is not exclusive to dramas, formula has become less and less the drug of choice for profit-addicted TV executives. Serialisation gives writers the chance to write stories, not follow formulas. Stories such as that of Breaking Bad take years to unfold, season after season. Each week we tune into something new, the next chapter of the story.
And yet, appearing again and again, there is one formulaic tool we can always bank on. Death. It has come to define the modern TV landscape. Ned Stark was tragic, Renly Baratheon, Robb Stark, too. But Jeor Mormont, Ygritte, Tywin, even, among many other season regulars, their deaths have been lost in sheer magnitude of it all. Time Magazine has published a detailed list of all the major character deaths on their website, all 74 of them. Was Oberyn’s death all that shocking? Had Robb’s betrayal taught us to expect that the good guy shall prevail? No. Oberyn’s death was expected, and its effects, dare I say, muted.
The theory of oversaturation is readily apparent in Game of Thrones, and on TV in general. Of course, ‘Game of Thrones’ isn’t the only example. ‘The Walking Dead’ is as bad, if not worse, introducing characters seemingly for the sole purpose of killing them off at the mid-season break for dramatic effect. ‘Sons of Anarchy’, ‘Dexter’, ‘The Americans’, all these shows, and more, readily kill of their characters, and that’s a problem.
The quality of modern TV is often defined by its willingness to do what mainstream film is afraid to. Rich, complex stories pave the way for drugs and violence, coarse language, and not to mention, HBO’s best friend, gratuitous sex and nudity. Would Breaking Bad have been half the show it was if Walt cooked, what, hard toffee’s? That would have been the political alternative to cooking methamphetamines, would it not?
Death factors into this – TV’s ballsiness, if you will. Death is confronting, it’s a simple fact, even in Hollywood. So where films may fail to commit to the divisive and maybe devastating, television has pledged wholeheartedly. Even though I had predicted it from misguided ventures onto the internet, Ned’s death still came as a shock. It was like being winded. Did they just do that?
Did they just kill Ned Stark!?
Somewhat familiar, isn’t it? “Did they just kill Ned Stark?” “Who shot J.R?” Though “hold the door” may be on the lips of many a Game of Thrones fan, will it cement itself in the same way as poor J.R did? Would Hodor’s heroic demise not have been a ‘Who killed J.R?’ moment; a fan favourite character, who had been with the show since the very beginning, back against the wall – or the door, with certain demise a few painstaking frames away. Yet his not the first this season, nor will it be the last. He is merely number 75 in Time’s certainly soon to be revised list. Its effect has been dulled, muted.
To kill off a character takes balls, yes. Especially when they are a fan favourite, or a long standing regular, such as Hodor. So why do it? Surely every death in Game of Thrones didn’t directly sway the story one way or the other. It’s shocking, yes, and Game of Throne’s deaths have most certainly shocked. But is that it? Shock value.
Maybe it is. ‘Walking Dead’, ‘Game of Thrones’ – seasons can drag on for hours upon hours. Sometimes the story slows, sometimes by necessity, sometimes by poor writing. How do you keep a viewer invested in a show where the payoff may not arrive for many episodes, or even seasons, to come? Maybe you kill off a character here and there. Get the internet buzzing, if only for a moment.
Surely it’s not that simple, I know. I haven’t written a television series. Its many complexities and mechanisms I can only imagine. Some deaths – Ned, Joffery, Rob, are genuine, important plot points, and in no way do the lesser demises dampen the quality of programming these days. It has simply muted the effect that death once had. It was shocking, once – a startling surprise; whereas now the reverse is true. It is almost more shocking to see a character prevail.