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Death, where is thy sting? How about on primetime

Nets shied away from killing off of major characters -- until recently

Twenty years ago, television tested the waters of suddenly eliminating a major character in a popular series when Patrick Duffy’s Bobby Ewing — a staple of the infamous soap “Dallas” for nearly a decade — was killed off by the show’s writing team to the shock of viewers worldwide.

The series then, however, went into a ratings slump, leaving the network with no other choice than to pull its punch and bring dead Bobby back; turns out he didn’t really die after all. It was only a dream.

Such dramatics are the standard for soap opera entertainment, but in an age where franchise series run nearly a decade with the same lovable (or lovably detestable) cast members, the killing off of major characters is typically shied away from by ratings-hungry networks — until recently.

While a major network may not have dreamed of fully nixing dominant series players with much frequency in times of TV drama past, the practice looks to be a matter of course in today’s primetime environment.

The heavily buzzed season premiere of “The Sopranos” kicked things off this year with Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) being gunned down, his life hanging in the balance.

Four years ago, writers eliminated the unsavory Ralph Cifretto from the show, and actor Joe Pantoliano took home an Emmy for his portrayal that season after a three-year engagement. Will Emmy take notice of this year’s crop of valiant series departures? One thing is certain. There will be plenty to choose from.

One of television’s most popular shows, ABC’s “Lost,” waited until the end of season one to finally dispatch one of its castaways, as young Boone Carlyle (Ian Somerhalder) succumbed to injuries sustained from an accident in the jungle. In the series’ recently concluded second season, the bloodletting commenced much sooner as Boone’s half-sister Shannon (Maggie Grace) met her end in the seventh episode.

“On ‘Lost,’ the story dictates all,” writer and executive producer Damon Lindelof says. “The timing of character deaths isn’t arbitrary, it’s because we designed it that way. In this case, we knew the Tailies (survivors from the tail portion of Oceanic Flight 815 who first appeared in season two) would be merging with our main gang, and we wanted something emotional and chaotic to happen when that merge occurred.”

With so much secrecy surrounding the plot of “Lost,” even the actors aren’t certain from week to week whether they will survive or become one of the fallen. One could assume that anxiety seeps in, becoming a resident aspect of the set. Lindelof agrees, adding, “Logic dictates it sure isn’t as reassuring as most shows.” As such, second-season additions Ana-Lucia Cortez (Michelle Rodriguez) and Libby (Cynthia Watros) took their fatal leaves just weeks before the season finale.

Fox’s ever-resilient “24” finished its fifth season in May as well, one bursting with surprise exits by everyone from warmhearted tech expert Edgar Stiles (Louis Lombardi) to series staples like agents Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) and Michelle Dessler (Reiko Aylesworth). The series even premiered with the shocking assassination of former President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert).

With creators Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran stepping away to concentrate on other projects, TV veteran and longtime “24” writer Howard Gordon has moved up to become showrunner on the series.

“This is a show with tragic undertones that deals with life and death,” he explains, “and in order to prove the lethality, someone has to die. But it has to come at a time when we feel these characters have had their stories told. We always try to progress the characters each year. What is important is how the surviving characters grow through death.”

Actor Sean Astin, whose CTU director Lynn McGill was eliminated midseason, feels the challenge for writers is to keep the material fresh.

“That was the fun for me,” he offers, “not knowing what was going to happen with my character. And there is electricity that goes through the cast; as ambassador of your character, you hope your guy makes it. But I was at a press conference where Kiefer Sutherland said as clear as day that he wants the show to outlast his character. I’d say that was a warning, a titillation, whatever you want to call it, that even Jack Bauer isn’t safe.”

Jack Bauer not safe? Who will save the day then?

“There are ideas floating around,” Gordon affords. “I know I would love to see Jack’s last day on Earth. The trick then is to find a character that would not just be a Jack Bauer imitation. But no one is willing to commit to that just yet.”

The evolution of television writing seems to have come to this: an arena championing the progression of plot above the maintenance of popular key characters, even in the face of potential fan backlash. Why this is the case is anyone’s guess, though Lindelof has a theory.

“The stakes have been raised, pure and simple,” he says. “The idea of generating watercooler television — something that really gets people to tune in because they don’t know what will happen next — and that anything could happen … well, the shocking death twist (or SDT as they’re referred to in the trade) is bound to become more prevalent.”

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