When Tragedy Strikes: How Television Shows Handle a Character’s Death

Posted on Oct 1 2013 - 9:01am by Guest Writer

by Tahnayee Clendinen, Guest Writer

When an actor in an ongoing TV show dies, that person’s character lives on until the director kills him or her or the show itself dies. The result is different for every show, with some attempting to soldier on. Others simply kill off the character and then fail due to dismal ratings.

Popular early 2000s television show “8 Simple Rules,” which starred John Ritter as the father, Katey Sagal as the mother and Kaley Cuoco as one of their daughters, suffered a misfortune when Ritter passed away. Ritter, known for his classic appearance as Jack Tripper on “Three’s Company,” suffered a heart attack in September 2003, leaving the show with a fatherless void.

The show continued on without Ritter, trying to replace his character with an eccentric cousin and a witty grandfather. Ratings after the death just weren’t the same, and ABC canceled “8 Simple Rules” just one season later.

In July, “Glee’s” Cory Monteith succumbed to a drug and alcohol addiction.

The cast members on the show will carry on season five without Monteith’s character, Finn Hudson. There will be no replacement for his character. Cast member Leah Michele, who was Monteith’s real life girlfriend, will also be continuing on with her character.

There is no telling how “Glee’s” ratings will fare as it has had ups and downs throughout the show’s four-season run. Directors and actors on the show have both said they agree they would like to keep the show going in order to help the cast move past the grieving stage.

“We ultimately found that our cast and crew wanted to be together,” Ryan Murphy, a co-creator of “Glee,” said. “They wanted to go back to work, they wanted to sort of be in a place where they could all remember and discuss Cory [Monteith] sooner than later.”

The fate of “Glee” now rests solely on those who choose to tune in.

Another option for a show when an actor dies is to replace the deceased character. Or, the show can simply go on, acknowledging the removal of a character.

No matter what the show chooses, backlash is inevitable. Either die-hard fans disapprove of the new direction, causing the ratings to fail, or the show loses it magic and both new and old fans can feel the lack of vivacity.

It is important to remember the other actors on the show cannot just walk away from a project due to a death. Harsh as this may sound, they and the show’s staff put a lot of time and effort into the project. Since most shows that attempt to continue after a main character’s death fail, it can trigger a “what’s the point” attitude.

The point is that the show, if it is a good show, has something to offer. Traditionally, all of the surviving cast members are often, in a sense, penalized for the death of another, and it is not fair. So let the shows carry on and attempt to pick up whatever pieces the tragedy of death leaves behind. Even if the show fails, it fails on the triumph of trying rather than the coattails of giving up.