The killing joke
Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What television trope aggravates you the most?”
Clichés exist for a reason. As I pointed out in my post on the cinematic baguette, whenever a trope becomes exhausted to the point of parody, it’s because it was once incredibly useful. Most of the conventions that wind up advertising a story’s unreality, like the fact that the first bill the hero pulls from his wallet is always the exact amount he needs to pay for his cab, or that people in movies rarely say “Hello” or “Goodbye” on the phone, are about saving time or conveying information to the audience. Two of my wife’s least favorite tropes fall in this category: Hollywood Gift Wrap, in which a present is wrapped so that the character can open it simply by lifting off the lid, and They Wasted a Perfectly Good Sandwich, in which one character meets another for lunch, orders, then leaves as soon as the food arrives. In both cases, there’s a pragmatic rationale—it’s a pain to rewrap a present between takes, and it’s equally hard to maintain continuity with food—but it also makes good narrative sense. The point isn’t to watch the character unwrapping the present, but to see what’s inside the box, and even if we’re annoyed by the transparent artifice of that lid with its separate ribbon, we’d probably be even more irritated if the show spent thirty seconds showing the character fumbling with the gift paper.
Television has its own set of tropes that the nature of the medium enforces, although whenever you notice a convention for the first time, you’ll also find a show that can’t wait to break it. For decades, sitcoms and procedural dramas tended to hit the reset button at the end of every episode: no matter what happened, you’d find the characters in the same familiar situations and relationships the following week. This was largely a consequence of syndication, which routinely aired episodes out of order, and the rise in serialized storytelling fueled by alternative viewing options has allowed shows of every genre to show characters evolving over time. Similarly, the concept of the character shield originates in the logistics of actors’ contracts: when the lead actors are slated to appear at least through the rest of the season, there’s little suspense over whether Mulder or Scully will survive their latest brush with the paranormal. More recently, however, shows have begun to play with the audience’s expectations on how invulnerable major characters can be. Joss Whedon is notorious for killing off fan favorites, and Game of Thrones has raised the bar for showing us the unexpected deaths of lead characters—and not once but twice.
On the surface, this seems like a positive development, since it discourages audience complacency and forces the viewer to fully commit to the drama of each episode. With occasional exceptions, the show’s lead character is still relatively safe, barring the occasional contract dispute, but when it comes to the supporting cast, we’ve been taught that no one is immune. Yet I’ve begun to feel that this idea has become a cliché in itself, and at its worst, the storytelling it inspires can be equally lazy. One unexpected character death can be shocking; when a show piles them up over and over again, as The Vampire Diaries does, it isn’t long before we start to see diminishing returns. (It doesn’t help that nobody on The Vampire Diaries seems to stay dead forever.) Even on shows that parcel out their casualties out more scrupulously, there’s a sense that this trope is becoming exhausted. When an important character was suddenly dispatched at the beginning of the second season of House of Cards, it was shocking in the moment—although I found myself more distracted by the inexplicability of it all—but the show seemed eager to dance away from confronting the consequences. These days, it’s just business as usual.
And the worst thing about the casual killing of characters is that it encourages a sort of all or nothing approach to writing stories. Ninety percent of the time, a show goes through the motions, but every few episodes, somebody is shoved in front of a bus—when it might be more interesting, and more difficult, to create tension and suspense while those characters were sill alive. Major deaths should be honestly earned, not just a way to keep the audience awake. Of course, it’s easier to shock than to engage, and the sudden death of a character has become television’s equivalent of a jump scare, an effect that can pulled off the shelf without thinking. I hate to keep coming back to Breaking Bad as a reference point, just because it’s what everyone else does, but I can’t help it. Few viewers had any doubt that Walt, and probably Jesse, would make it to the final episode, so the writers became agonizingly inventive at finding ways of testing them and their loved ones in the meantime, to the point where death itself seemed like a blessing. At this point, I’m no longer surprised or impressed when a character dies, but I’m actively grateful when a show puts us through the wringer in other ways. There’s an enormous spectrum of experience between life and death. And it’s far better to keep these characters alive, if you can make me care about what happens to them next.