Death Is a Serious Business in TV Drama

We must get used to the fact that whatever lives is bound to die, even if it is a character in a long-distance TV series.

On the BBC quiz show “The Weakest Link,” after host Anne Robinson has had her fun wittily insulting the contestants, once in a while comes the moment when she announces the imminence of “sudden death.” When the wise and-not-so-wise guys (including gals) who are left standing after the grueling and grilling elimination rounds are tied after the showdown of the last five questions, one of them only has to fail once to lose and get lost. “The Weakest Link” had its own not so sudden demise at the end of 2012, but it can still be seen on BBC Entertainment in endless reruns. The thirst for watching exponents of human ignorance and knowledge of matters utterly immaterial is apparently unquenchable.

The “sudden death” expression, originally from matters of life and death, is basically a medical term, stressing the fact that the cessation of life was abrupt and surprising, as opposed to a prolonged process of a body succumbing to various factors assaulting it, with the medics doing their best to stave off death and save lives. But we, being mere mortals and not God-like medics who profess to know how one manages to give death a fair fight, know that death, in whatever shape, form or time it comes, is forever sudden, even if foreseeable and expected.

And why wouldn’t it be (sudden), if it is part and parcel of life itself? After all, life is being, while death is not, and as long as we are alive, we find it hard contemplating not being. Every death – especially in the family, but in some way whenever and to whomever it comes – surprises us. It rubs in the fact that our own death is somewhere out there. It is – as I’ve already quipped on these pages more than once – the ultimate “spoiler” of our lives.

That’s why I don’t flash the “spoiler alert” here, although I’m going to discuss a plot-shaking (the equivalent of “world-shaking” in TV series-land) event that occurred last week, in the 21st episode of the 11th season of “Grey’s Anatomy,” which aired in the U.S. on ABC on April 23, and in Israel on Yes Stars Drama on April 27. One should get used to the fact that whatever lives is bound to die, even if it is a character in a long-distance TV series. Paradoxically, when it comes to fictional characters, their fictional death is a sort of proof positive that they were alive before their premature demise.

Also, the aforementioned event – here it comes: Dr. Derek Shepherd dies following a car crash – created quite a stir even before it was broadcast. So it is inconceivable that anyone even remotely interested in the series (others don’t care either way) was not aware of his death in this episode. Hence, no spoiler.

The oddest thing about the death of a character in a TV series is that it tremendously enlivens the discourse about the series and increases interest in it. Please note: It is not just the fact of a death as part of the plot. Almost every TV series has a dead body hidden somewhere: a corpse that leads to a chase after a criminal in a police procedural, or a body being dissected by a forensic pathologist, or an ailing mass of bones proceeding on the way of all flesh on an operating table in a medical series.

Death, in a way, is a character in itself in medical series, of which “Grey’s Anatomy” is currently the most popular (after the demise of “House M.D.”) and continuing (12th season commissioned). Patients keep dying on screen, breaking the hearts of their relatives and caregivers. Matters of life and death are continuously discussed either by characters who seem to wield the magic wand of a scalpel that can perform life-or-death magic tricks, or in a voiceover by Meredith Grey, to whose anatomy the title of the series – which is also the title of a classic medical manual – refers. She ruminates constantly on matters of life and death, sort of summing up every episode for the viewer.

We have even seen some of the beloved medics of “Grey’s Anatomy” at death’s door or dying on screen. Remember Izzie Stevens, who was terminally ill with cancer and wrenched our hearts, but got better and left the plot (but not the fictional world outside the series plot), or the loveable George O’Malley, her onetime love interest who got himself run over by a bus? So why should we be so shocked by the death of Dr. Derek?

Partly because he is not just another character. By this point in the series he has become an essential, inseparable part of Meredith, and just as much a part of the core of the series for its loyal viewers. He survived so many tribulations in his own personal and professional life, saved so many patients against impossible odds; supported Medredith and fought her and comforted her and was always there for her. He had become the most solid point in an otherwise confusing world.

Partly, also, because we were lulled into a false feeling of security. Every TV series leads a double life. There is a plot in which the characters act and are reacted to, and there is a meta-plot in which the series’ creator and its actors coexist with their creations but strive to retain some control over their own lives. More often than not a character is written out of a series – killed off or departing to a separate life elsewhere – due to extra-artistic constraints (he or she becomes insufferable on the set or just too expensive). This time we were told that Patrick Dempsey (the actor who played Dr. Shepherd) had signed on for two more seasons. It looked like his death was not in the cards.

And yet it came, and suddenly indeed. Shonda Rhimes, the series creator and showrunner, wrote the episode herself. Viewers, expecting to be stunned, had to go through a rollercoaster of emotions before Dr. Shepherd almost announced his own death in voice-over. Now we will have some chapters to go through the stages of bereavement until the season’s end.

It turns out that Dempsey wanted to leave the series because he was worried that by staying on as Dr. Shepherd he might be jeopardizing his own life as an actor: A beloved character has to die to keep the body and soul of he who impersonated it alive. And what is life for an actor? To give birth to yet another fictional character, lead its life, and then kill it in order to survive.

What can I tell you about the meaning of it all? Well, life goes on, TV or no TV.