This week’s question comes from contributor Evan Rytlewski:
What show did you stop watching after a character was killed off?
While TV has offed any number of romantic heroes—Will Gardner, McDreamy—only one death has caused me to give up a formerly beloved show outright. I had too much invested in the relationship of Downton Abbey’s Matthew and Lady Mary Crawley for him to give it all up in a pointless car crash (especially after that magical winter proposal). Everyone knew Dan Stevens was leaving the show, which just made his character’s death in the season-three finale all the more clumsy and obvious: The accident happens right after he visits Mary and their newborn in the hospital, making his bride a young, widowed mother. Downton Abbey had a lot of tomfoolery to wade through in those early seasons (O’Brien’s machinations, Thomas’ pouting), yet I still loved transporting to that sublime early-20th-century estate every Sunday. But killing Mary’s lovely, spirited sister Sybil (in childbirth, yet) earlier that season had already tested my patience. After the death of my other favorite character, even the Dowager Countess’ one-liners weren’t enough to keep me hanging around the Abbey.
Given its combination of repetition, body count, and general nihilism, there are probably a dozen valid answers possible for The Walking Dead. But for me, the show died with Shane Walsh, Jon Bernthal’s increasingly unhinged good-old-boy foil for Andrew Lincoln’s heroic survivor Rick Grimes. As a former reader of the comics, I initially rolled my eyes at the show keeping Shane alive well after his print-mandated death. But the longer I watched, the better he worked as a push against Rick’s tarnishing idealism, and the more I enjoyed Bernthal’s performance, which kept Shane’s escalating madness pitiable and sympathetic instead of hateful and cruel. It’s not that the Walking Dead shouldn’t have killed Shane, though; his death is as fated as that of a Shakespearean hero, and it provides the show’s second season with a penultimate episode as moving and horrific as anything on Game Of Thrones. But it should not have survived him—especially because it’s spent the four seasons since just throwing up more and more Shane-like figures (including, eventually, Rick himself), to fill the gap, as it shambled forward like a hollow, unthinking corpse.
Shocking character deaths were a part of 24 from its inception, so it doesn’t seem like a show that would be able to alienate a long-time viewer by killing off a beloved character. Yet that’s exactly the experience I had watching 24’s sixth season, in which dutiful CTU agent Curtis Manning (Roger Cross) dies at the hands of his partner Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), who elects to kill Curtis before Curtis can kill a valuable asset with whom he has a score to settle. As much as I liked Curtis as a character, his death was the final straw for me because it represented 24’s endless repetition and narrative brinkmanship. Season six is by far the show’s worst season because the writers pushed themselves too far in an effort to intensify the jolts and heighten the stakes. The sudden deaths, once thrilling and heartbreaking, began to feel cheap, manipulative, and pointless. Curtis’ death is the show’s most glaring error, because it was shock for shock’s sake in a season that already featured the detonation of a nuclear weapon on American soil. The show lost a good character and gained nothing except the umpteenth example of how Jack Bauer will do the unthinkable to get results.
Any attempt to divine why 10-year-old me chose to watch anything is bunk magic, since kids’ tastes are as indiscriminate as they are terrible. So there’s no way of knowing why I developed a loyalty to Valerie Harper’s self-titled sitcom, Valerie. My best guess is it was due to the presence of Jason Bateman, who I loved from his previous series, It’s Your Move. Whatever the reason, I was a dedicated fan. At least, I was until the end of the second season, when Harper walked off of her own show in hopes of forcing a better contract. NBC responded by killing her character off in a car crash and rebranding the third season as Valerie’s Family: The Hogans (and eventually, The Hogan Family). Sandy Duncan filled in as an aunt living with the family in the wake of Valerie’s death. I had a stubborn dislike of Duncan as strongly and arbitrarily felt as my inexplicable enjoyment of the show she took over. I unfairly equated her with dated and corny entertainment from the ’70s. To my snotty kid’s mind, even her name sounded like some food product that didn’t survive to see Ronald Reagan inaugurated: a pimento-stuffed snack cake or a line of ham-flavored crackers. I immediately stopped watching the show and had to wait 17 years until Arrested Development came along to give me my Jason Bateman fix.
Like requisite authority figure Stefan Brogren, I can never truly quit Degrassi, Canada’s proudest contribution to the TV canon. But I definitely soured on the infamously melodramatic teen soap following the stabbing death of lovable goofball J.T. Yorke. This is the type of plot twist that Degrassi’s reputation is staked on, the stuff of “It goes there” ad campaigns and future Kroll Show parodies. But as J.T. bleeds out against the side of his car, held in the arms of Liberty Van Zandt—whose love for the school mascot prevailed despite J.T.’s immaturity, an unplanned pregnancy, and J.T.’s bonkers detour into illegal pharmaceutical sales and an Oxycodone overdose—the parade of misery at the heart of Degrassi begins to feel genuinely miserable. The shock of the moment sucks a lot of the fun out of watching Toronto’s unluckiest teens. I recently blazed through the first season of Degrassi: Next Class on Netflix, but only because the angst of Degrassi Community School seems so remote from my own early 30s existence—and because none of the new kids have any connection to J.T.
I suspect I’ve used this answer before, but it’s still the only time I can remember this happening. Joss Whedon has a history of creating lovable characters and then killing them off for narrative purposes; plenty of other writers do this, but somehow, Whedon’s mixture of charming losers and brutal twists gets under my skin like no other. And for me, the breaking point hit in season five of Angel. Maybe I had a crush on the actress, maybe I was going through a rough time in my life, but when a curse killed Winifred “Fred” Burkle, obliterating her soul in the process, I quit the show for good. The manipulation was painfully obvious, and while the drama that resulted from that manipulated arguably justified the strings, it was too far for me. I managed to come back for the last few scenes of the finale (and whatever other problems I had with it, that show ended damn well), and leaving halfway through the final season means I probably didn’t miss that much, but still, it meant losing some trust in a writer whose work I adored. (Said trust was then itself brutally murdered when Whedon made Serenity.)
This is a bit of a cheat as I did eventually go back and finish the show, but few things have devastated me more than the death of Charlie Pace on Lost. It was partly because I found Charlie to be an incredibly endearing character and partly because my intense middle school Lord Of The Rings fandom made me feel overprotective of Dominic Monaghan. In retrospect, I can appreciate that Charlie got a fantastic send-off—staying calm under pressure to warn Desmond with the now-iconic message “Not Penny’s Boat.” But at the time I was just devastated that Charlie and Claire wouldn’t get their happy ending, and gave up on the show for the next few years. I did finally catch-up in order to watch the last few episodes live and seeing Charlie get a better life in the flash sideways helped ease my pain a little (but just a little).
I’ve certainly lost characters I was attached to and pressed on with a series (most of the casts of Game Of Thrones and 24 come to mind). So it’s funny that the character whose death put me off a show was one I had very little attachment to—Commodore Louis Kaestner, mentor-turned-enemy of Boardwalk Empire’s Nucky Thompson. The Commodore was an underdeveloped character, due largely to Dabney Coleman falling ill during production. But as the series grasped at larger themes, he stood in for Nucky’s past coming back to haunt him, and the theme of Steve Buscemi’s crooked politician-turned gangster hemmed in by both older and younger generations of power-hungry rivals seemed to have potential. Complicating things was the reveal that that younger generation’s representative, Michael Pitt’s Jimmy Darmody, was in fact the Commodore’s illegitimate son, the result of a tryst with then-13-year-old Gillian (Gretchen Mol). Things come to a head in “Under God’s Power She Flourishes,” when Jimmy murders the Commodore, and, in flashback, sleeps with Gillian. Boardwalk’s early seasons struggled to figure out what kind of show it wanted to be, but once it settled on Oedipal drama, I cashed out.
It was arguably in decline by this point anyway, but I threw up my hands and stopped watching Boardwalk Empire long after Mike did. I hung around for the incest, the heroin, the bombings, the shootings, and all of that tough-guy dialogue. I kept watching after they killed off Jimmy Darmody, although it hollowed out the dramatic heart of the show. But when Nucky Thompson’s new right-hand man, Owen Sleater (Charlie Cox), was delivered to Nucky’s doorstep in that wooden crate toward the end of season three, I was out. It robbed poor Margaret of her last chance to escape Nucky, leaving what was once one of the most sympathetic characters on the show with little more than a boring charity-work subplot. It was also clear in that moment that when the writers reached a turning point for a character, they would just kill them off. (As opposed to send them away, like they did in the first season.) Sure, it was shocking—the first couple of times. But unlike a show like Game Of Thrones, which manages to keep viewers guessing while maintaining a high body count, this just felt routine.
As I’ve gotten older and crankier, the frequency with which I “rage quit”—that is, stop watching a show forever, often in the middle of an episode—has increased exponentially. The first time I can recall being so disgusted with a show that I had to stop watching immediately, though, was when Prison Break put Sara Tancredi’s head in a box. Prison Break was never high art, but it was extremely entertaining and propulsive, and a big part of my obsession with it was because of the love story between Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) and Sara Tancredi (Sarah Wayne Callies). When Callies got in a contract dispute with the producers between the second and third seasons, the producers made the decision to kill her character instead of writing her off the show. With some hindsight, it’s fairly easy to see why the producers decided to do this, as writing her off the show would have made very little sense for the character or the plot. But as a fan of the couple, having the producers kill her off screen and reveal her death to the audience by showing her severed head in a box felt vindictive, disgusting, and a bit like a slap in the face. Luckily this story has a happy ending, both for me and for the character of Sara: Callies and the producers mended fences before the fourth season, and Sara’s death was retconned as a trick played by the evil shadowy cabal at the heart of the show’s mythology. Walking back this story was silly, sure, but it was enough to bring me back as a viewer in season four.
I can’t exactly claim that I stopped watching NYPD Blue because Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) died of complications from a heart transplant early in season six. The beginning of season six coincided with my freshman year of college, and the combination of initially not having a TV in my dorm room and being away from home, where NYPD Blue was something I watched with my mom, did just as much to lead me away from the series; probably more. But Bobby’s death made it easy for me to leave the show, because I actually started tuning in after the departure of original star David Caruso, early in season two, when Smits first arrived. For whatever reason (and I’m really not sure why I started watching right at that time), my NYPD Blue was the one with Smits and Dennis Franz. In fact, while I was faintly aware of various cast changes over the years that followed (The show ran for 12 seasons!), I’m sure I’ve never seen an episode of NYPD Blue that didn’t have Jimmy Smits. I’ve also never really watched any other shows starring Smits, so I guess it was a magic, Simone-and-Sipowicz-like combination that couldn’t be duplicated.