You have to hand it to Fox and the producers of House: They certainly seem to have cut through the clutter of a not-so-terrific year for primetime drama and caused a stir with the out-of-the-blue suicide last night of Dr. Lawrence Kutner (Kal Penn).
From a publicity standpoint, Fox and the producers did a great job of keeping the plot development under cover until it happened -- thereby assuring the greatest impact. But there are issues that need to be discussed ranging from dropping a suicide bomb like that on viewers, to the way Fox is handling the death on the morning after.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about these intended-to-shock season-ending deaths and how much I hated the way they sometimes abused viewer emotions and the relationships some fans had built with favorite characters over the years. I think this one fits the profile.
Here's the crux of what I said: "In recent years, prime-time economics and hustler producer-writers who have killed off characters left and right for shock value in an effort to paper over their failures as dramatists have cheapened the medium (cable channels like HBO included) to the point where it is a sea of cheap thrills and empty storytelling come season finale time."
You can read the full post here.
In defense of the way the killing of Kutner was treated onscreen, I think most longtime fans of Fox are used to seeing life and death depicted harshly and raw. This is not a drama for those who want their view of life and death sugarcoated. I do not believe an honest drama could depict suicide without making it shocking, awful and sad.
But was the suicide itself dramatically necessary or just an exploitative twist to creat some buzz for a show that didn't have much this season? And about the morning-after blitz by Fox as it tries to extend the matter and grab more publicity? Here is how the network describes it:
I am fascinated by the ritual of mourning being played out in social media. As a student of pop culture and media, I could write about it forever.
On the other hand, and maybe I am being naive about teenagers and their understanding of new media, but given the shock of the on-air death and this kind of "somber" handling, I wonder if some adolescent viewers might be confused and think the actor, Penn, died.
(He didn't. He says he is going into politics as a staffer in the White House, according to Entertainment Weekly. You couldn't make that up.)
But maybe this concern for the viewer is only old-media thinking on my part -- why should I worry that audience members have solid information and are not confused by what they are seeing on the screen.
I'll tell you why: because the emotional ties we form with TV characters are serious, complex and, I would argue, even profound in some cases -- and the creators of the shows we reward with our loyalty have a responsibility not to abuse it. Think of your favorite all-time character, and how much they affected your life, especially in your teens and 20s.
If Fox and producers of House aren't crossing a line, I believe they are walking right up to it.