TV DEATHS: FADE TO BLACK
The death of actor Larry Hagman the day after Thanksgiving resonated with a lot of people. Many TV fans heard the news and immediately thought, “Oh no! Not Tony Nelson!” (From “I Dream of Jeannie”) Or more likely, “Aw, man, J.R. Ewing’s dead!” (From “Dallas”) Not many of us knew the actor, but we feel the loss of this favored character he played as acutely as the loss of a friend or family. More so, in some cases.
It’s a weird thing, TV fandom. We get attached to characters in movies, of course: Harry Potter, Bridgette Jones, James Bond, everyone in “Little Miss Sunshine” or “Christmas Vacation”. But TV is different. TV characters seem more familiar, more there. It makes sense. Even a recurring movie character like James Bond is on a giant screen in a huge auditorium for a couple hours, then disappears for two or three years. But a TV character is in our living rooms, bedrooms or iPads EVERY WEEK. Absence may make the heart grow fonder in real-life relationships, but when it comes to bonding with our favorite characters, more episodes means more love.
So, when a character dies, we feel it. When I was a kid, I saw the 4th Doctor on “Doctor Who” die in a cliffhanger episode and was stricken. When the next episode aired and he escaped unharmed, I cheered and danced, genuinely relieved. I wasn’t old enough to get that shows don’t kill off main characters. At least, they didn’t in the old days.
I think “Lost” was really the first show where it was common for main,name in the opening credits, character to die. And not just in season or series finales. Until “Lost”, the death of a main character warranted a show-stopping “special” episode. It was epic change for a long-running series, not simply this week’s plot twist.
When John Ritter died several years ago, it was written into the sitcom “8 Simple Rules”, with huge dramatic effect. In contrast, in the 1960s, when the original actor who played Darren, a central character, on “Bewitched” left (by choice, not death), they just hired a whole different guy to play him without explanation and nobody really even noticed.
“Lost” declared no one was indispensable.
That expendability, in a way, made the characters more precious. There are so many channels now and so many shows, the emotional investment in characters doesn’t happen that often. With “Lost”, it did.
JR Ewing/Larry Hagman rode to fame in an era where characters were more invincible, but there were fewer of them (fewer channels, no Internet). So when one stood up and shouted, like JR, we noticed.
And maybe it’s because of that appearance of immortality, Hagman’s death hits TV fans so hard; all the more so because JR was back on TV in the “Dallas” reboot last summer and now fans are left wondering what will happen with season 2.
Even in death, Larry Hagman leaves us wanting more.