Broadcasting Death: When the Lights Go Out

Those who know me best know how big of a fan I am of AMC’s critically-acclaimed series, The Walking Dead. I’ve been watching since nearly day one, I’ve read and re-read the comic series that the show is based on, and I’ve converted countless family members and friends to watching along with me every week. As the credits rolled for the Season Six mid-season finale this past November, I found myself endlessly discussing the lackluster ending.

Much to my surprise, I heard a very common complaint no matter who I talked to: “No major characters died in this episode. It was really boring.” Though this took me aback, I wasn’t noticing the existence of a problem with the episode, but rather the nature of a cultural problem itself. Why is it that we, as the audience of any long-running, drama-oriented television program, are so interested in fictional deaths? What makes a character’s death, especially involving characters that we hold dear, so ridiculously compelling. The answer, interestingly enough, may lie in the progression of the medium of TV as a whole.


 


 

Rewind all the way back to the year 1965. The top action-oriented show in the United States was Bonanza, a weekly Western with over 17 million viewers each week. Batman, which aired on ABC, followed closely behind with an estimated weekly audience of 14 and a half million people. Besides these two programs, the rest of popular television consisted of either straight comedy or sketch shows.

In no case in the ’60s do we see a program driven by the death of its characters to the degree that shows such as The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, or Breaking Bad do today. 1975 saw much of the same. In fact, at that time very little action or drama could be found in the limelight—ABC’s The Bionic Woman being the single exception. As the years continued to roll by, so did the same basic principles of television: create dramatic situations, tell a story, allow a bit of tension to exist, but preserve the life of the vessels who tell the story in the first place.

The more I began to research the topic, the more I realized that there had to be a clearly defined line where it suddenly became not only socially acceptable, but required by the plot that the main characters of the work perish.

Where exactly is this line? To be completely honest, it can be hard to find. Themes in our society come and go, and nothing is ever absolutely objective. However, in my pursuit of an answer, I did happen upon one interesting case.

In the year 1983, Nicholas Meyer and Edward Hume created The Day After, a television movie that showcased the effects of nuclear war on society. Meyer and Hume’s work spent the majority of its time exploring the lives of citizens in a rural Kansas suburb, only to kill many of its main characters in the hours and days after the warheads drop on the town. Though tame by today’s standards, The Day After created a significant shockwave in households across the country for its stark, brutal depiction of nuclear war. As far as I could discover, this was the first instance a television program focused on character death was broadcasted directly into the homes and minds of American audiences.

The effects were neither immediate nor absolute, but it seems that the world began to ever-so-slowly embrace a darker tone in its everyday programming. Law and Order arose in 1990, followed by The Sopranos in 1999 and Band of Brothers in 2002. More modern examples are Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, and many, many more.

What makes us so prone to witnessing the deaths of our favorite characters? If The Day After is any answer, perhaps it’s our subconscious acknowledgement that death is looming around any corner, and that we must embrace the time that’s given to us. Or maybe, if my favorite TV show is to be believed, it’s the reminder that the only thing we all have in common is that we’re bound to die. Most likely, it’s a combination of both. Either way, our newfound fascination with death, not life, undeniably exists, and it can be a depressing reality to come to terms with.

But at least it makes for some excellent entertainment—that can’t be denied.

Featured Image By HBO Productions