When TV Characters Die

(NOTE: I tried to be general about names and specifics, but this post contains minor spoilers for How I Met Your Mother, Friday Night Lights, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, if you can call it that for a show that has been off the air for over 30 years).

Tonight I sat down on the couch with my freshly-prepared bowl of shrimp and zucchini barley risotto to watch my nightly episode (or two or three or four) of How I Met Your Mother, which I have been blazing through on Netflix, when something strange happened. At the end of what is usually a light and fun and relatively mindless 22 minutes, a major character found out his father has died, of a massive heart attack.

Since Netflix is basically the best thing ever, I immediately continued on into the next episode, which was the funeral. Now obviously I haven’t watched five and a half seasons of HIMYM in the last two months because it’s a crappy show, but I was so impressed by how sensitively and accurately they handled the sudden loss of a parent, from the perspectives of the child, the spouse, and the friends who feel helpless to offer anything but their physical presence.

Deaths happen all the time on TV–usually around February or May, when networks need to pull out the big guns to prove to advertisers people are actually watching their commercials–but more often than not it’s a ploy to shock (RIP Tyler), or to conveniently dispose of an unpopular or troublesome character or actor (RIP Marissa).

But sometimes, when a show really wants to dig into the stuff of real life, or, as I presume was the case with HIMYM, it wants to give an actor some real meat to work with to keep him from abandoning ship for his burgeoning movie career, they can really get it right.

When TV characters die, I don’t think many people grieve the loss of the character. They’re fictional, after all, and have absolutely zero impact on our actual lives. A TV death becomes meaningful to us (or maybe just to me?) when it is able to tap into some emotion we have felt, or that we anticipate feeling, when it helps us understand better the ways death of people we have known and loved have shaped us, and the ways death has made us and can make us think about life.

It is in this spirit I offer you my list of my “favorite” TV death-isodes. I’m not saying these are objectively the “best,” but they are the ones I have found most illuminating for understanding and processing grief in my own life:

How I Met Your Mother, “Bad News” and “Last Words”
See above? I enjoy reading about TV almost as much as I enjoy watching it, so as soon as these episodes were over I wiped the tears from my eyes and opened up my laptop to find recaps and analysis from when they originally aired. I was surprised to see that the first episode, “Bad News,” was not well-received, because the “big reveal” was so unexpected and, in the minds of many, unearned. The whole episode is clearly building up to a reveal of some bad news, which the main plot would have you believe is connected to the fertility status of two main characters. But it didn’t bother me that HIMYM used the fake-out; death often comes when we least expect it, and the juxtaposition of joy with shock and sadness is what made these episodes so great, and so true to life.

Friday Night Lights, “The Son”
You could say I have a problem with Netflix bingeing, but that would suggest that experiencing (not watching, experiencing) amazing shows like Friday Night Lights was a problem. And that is just not right. I could go on and on about how amazing FNL is, and I already have, multiple times, so I’ll save that particular speech for now. But in a series full of standout episodes, this one is maybe the most stand-out-iest for its beautiful depiction of a teenage boy trying to make sense of and deal with an incredibly difficult, complex death. Saracen’s eulogy for his father is one of the gutsiest speeches I’ve ever heard, from a writing perspective, and they pulled it off 1000%.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Chuckles Bites the Dust”
Okay, I threw in one funny take on death. This season six episode was ranked #1 on TV Guide’s “100 Greatest Episodes of All Time” (in 1997) and then #3 on their 2009 list (it got beat out by episodes of Seinfeld and The Sopranos) and if you’ve ever seen it there’s no way you forget it. A TV clown is killed in a parade where, dressed like a peanut, an elephant tried to “shell” him. Mary attempts to give a eulogy but can’t stop laughing–when the minister tells her it’s okay to laugh because Chuckles would have wanted it that way, she breaks down in tears. Yes, it’s very, very funny, but it uses that humor to illuminate the confusing expectations we have surrounding how we “should” think and act when confronted with death.

Am I the only one who feels this way? In what ways has a TV death most touched you?


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