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TELEVISION & RADIO

You are killing us!

Who's next? There's no telling as fan favorites on hit shows are felled.

March 14, 2006|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

IN a TV world where even Tony Soprano can get shot in the gut in the season opener, nobody is safe. And if Fox's "24" is any indication, not only can any character go at any time, there likely won't be a lack of company.

"Not Edgar!" the show's fans screamed in e-mails to the writers, on Internet blogs and even to other "24" actors on the street last week after Louis Lombardi's nerdy and sweet computer genius inhaled nerve gas and fell to his death as his close friends watched from behind protective glass. Still reeling from that loss, "24" viewers were dealt two more blows Monday night: Lynn McGill (Sean Astin), who annoyed as a boss, redeemed himself by dying to save Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and the rest of the CTU gang from the seeping gas; and Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) died in Bauer's arms at the end of the episode. Almeida was trying to avenge the murder of his wife, Michelle Dessler (Reiko Aylesworth), who died in this season's premiere, marked also by the surprising assassination of former U.S. President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert).

In an already risky industry in which shows get canceled without notice, there is no such thing as job security for actors no matter how beloved their character or how long they have been playing him or her -- even on a hit show. The lack of character-centered dramas in film has allowed for a renaissance in television, but the 200-channel universe has made it tougher to hold the attention of the audience, so writers have had to raise the stakes. For stories that deal with terrorism, crime and even the supernatural, death often becomes a logical outcome.

"You have to grab the audience, and I don't think you have to be sensational, but you have to be emotionally honest no matter what you're doing," "24" executive producer Howard Gordon said. "Shock for shock value will never work if it's not attached to something with emotional integrity. As a writer, it does make you dig a little deeper and look a little harder to get a result."

As audiences are opting to stay out of movie theaters and spend more time on the sofa, shows such as "24," "Lost," "The Shield" and "The Sopranos" are fulfilling the appetite for drama. This renaissance in television also attracts A-list actors, directors and writers who are willing to experiment with genres and storytelling that leaves viewers with their jaws dropped.

"I was out [last Tuesday] with some friends and I had a couple of women come up and say, 'Edgar better not be dead' and I'm like, 'What are you talking to me for?' " said "24's" Bernard, whose Tony Almeida was the only character, besides Jack Bauer, left standing since the series premiered in 2001. "You have no idea what's coming."

Other important players have also passed away on the show -- Jack's wife, Terri, at the end of the first season, for instance. But when Almeida became the fifth main casualty in the span of Day 5's first 13 hours, "24" kicked up the ante as leader of a storytelling shift in Hollywood. At the end of Sunday's season premiere of "The Sopranos," Tony (James Gandolfini) was shot in the stomach by his Uncle Junior, leaving unclear the future of the lead character on the HBO drama that helped set the small screen bloodbath in motion. Two of the original survivors on ABC's "Lost," Boone (Ian Somerhalder) and Shannon (Maggie Grace), have died. Even actors on monster hits with lighter tones aren't exempt: The first season of "Desperate Housewives" concluded with the death of one of the husbands.

"These days, they say the better the character you are, the more chances you have of going because television always has to take it up a notch," said Lombardi, who is so sad over the death of his Edgar that he hasn't watched the episode yet. "It always has to be brought up a level, and the only way to do that is to get rid of characters that people love. When someone like Edgar dies, people take it like they lost a family member. You can really get a reaction out of the audience."

Important characters have been dying on television practically since the small screen was invented, but it used to be that such deaths were precipitated by the actor's desire to leave the show or sometimes the actor's real death. There was the poignant moment in "MASH" in 1975 when fan favorite Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) died in a plane crash; there was Bobby Simone's (Jimmy Smits) excruciating demise on "NYPD Blue" in 1998 and Dr. Anthony Greene's (Anthony Edwards) death by brain tumor on "ER." All instances of the actors wanting to move on. No writer in his right mind would have dreamed of killing Kojak or Baretta or the Fonz just for the sake of telling a good story.

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