Nov 16, 2017
Fake death, real tears
Since real-world people get the same neuro-chemical happy nice time feelings when talking about their favorite fake TV friends, I suppose it’s hardly surprising that we faithful fans get a major real-life sad when said TV friends are have shuffled off this mortal coil and gone to join the choir invisible.
Researchers confirm it: people genuinely mourn dead characters.
M*A*S*H is famous as the first show to karate kick its viewers right in the feels with a major character being written off the show via death, and they cranked the audience manipulation right up to 11 to ensure maximum impact. This was 1975, when death was still much too serious a topic to intrude upon our primetime recreation, especially in a sitcom. So when Col. Henry Blake gets his word that his tour of duty is up and he’s returning home to the states, audiences are ready for a bittersweet farewell. And the show delivers exactly what’s expected, with touching moments as the characters say goodbye to their beloved boss, and Col. Blake heads off to his much deserved happy ending back home. The end.
Oh, and by the way, Col. Blake’s helicopter was blown out to the sky, no survivors. We learn in the last scene, a seeming epilogue, that Col. Blake is dead, the biggest WTF moment in television history to that date. (Sadly, Snopes says FALSE to the urban legend that the actors were also completely blindsided by Col. Blake’s death, having no idea when filming the scene that the character’s death was about to be announced.)
Since then, we’ve become somewhat accustomed to TV shows killing off characters. We know when we hear that an actor is leaving a show that death is a possibility, so it’s nearly impossible to achieve the level of shock that M*A*S*H achieved.
Personally, I’ve been blindsided twice. And the emotions were very real. Not “family” or “close friend” level, but definitely painful. Tears were shed, days of dwelling followed, and more than a little anger.
(Spoilers ahead, obviously.)
Joss Whedon may be famous these days for killing off characters, but that wasn’t always the case. Back in the day, Buffy fans had no reason to expect that a rather goofy fifth season episode about a robot would have a tacked-on, M*A*S*H-style epilogue in which Buffy’s mom is discovered lying on the couch, dead of a blood clot in the brain, completely unrelated to anything else in the episode. FUCK YOU, JOSS. JUST FUCK YOU.
The next episode is one of the most painful hours of TV imaginable, with Buffy simply doing the stuff you have to do in the hours after a family member dies, from filling out forms to informing your little sister.
The other is very similar: it’s a parent, it’s a tacked-on reveal at the end, and it involves Alyson Hannigan. How I Met Your Mother carefully and successfully employs misdirection in the sixth season episode “Bad News” to make you think the impending doom being foreshadowed throughout the episode has to do with Lily and Marshal’s fertility, but all turns out to be fine on the baby-making front. Then Lily shows up at the end to tell Marshal that his father has just died of a heart attack.
I’ve been surprised and upset by character deaths other times, but those are the two that really got to me. Which fake people have had the greatest emotional impact on you?