Last week, the producers of the Fox medical drama House pulled off one of the more difficult tricks in TV these days: They cut through the clutter of a not-so-terrific year for prime-time scripted series and caused a major stir with the out-of-the-blue suicide of a character, Dr. Lawrence Kutner (Kal Penn).
The shocking gunshot wound to the head of this make-believe character gave birth to a host of real-life questions as to how we relate to TV, how the networks sometimes exploit our devotion to beloved characters, and how new media, like Facebook and Twitter, are making fictional characters more a part of our everyday lives than ever. All were passionately debated on my Z on TV blog at baltimoresun.com this week.
Personally, I always had a problem keeping TV characters in the box and out of my head - long after the television set had been turned off. That's probably why I became a TV critic. But looking at Kutner's TV death and the reaction to it, I think the problem may be spreading though the culture.
The first issue involves the suicide itself and the way characters are killed off at this time of year to give last-minute lifts to sagging series. As I have said before, I hate these intended-to-shock season-ending deaths and the way they abuse viewer emotions.
And even if it is true, as Penn claims, that he wanted off the series to go to work in President Barack Obama's White House, the producers could have found a dozen less-graphic, and possibly more emotionally satisfying, ways to have him say goodbye.
But we are in the high season of sudden death to longtime characters, so emotional attachments be damned, brace yourself for more morbidity.
While many readers testified to their deep attachments to TV characters, others mocked the very idea.
"You know, I would like to deny it, but you're right about viewers forming emotional attachments to TV characters. It's weird that on any level I mistake a created character for a person, but I've done it (a little) time and again, and missed them when they leave," a reader from Baltimore named John wrote in a comment on my blog.
"It's a fictional character on a TV show. GET OVER IT," another John wrote in response minutes later.
John Caughey, an anthropologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, wrote a landmark book on the topic in 1984, Imaginary Social Worlds. In his extensive and in-depth interviews, he reveals the way in which some of the people he spoke to built their very identity - particularly in adolescence and young adulthood - on TV characters.
Speaking of the career woman Mary Richards, the central character in the 1970s CBS sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show, one young woman told Caughey that in times of stress, "I would find myself thinking, 'What would Mary do?' ... I would imagine myself exactly like Mary. ... And I ended up regretting my behavior a lot less when I behaved as I thought Mary would behave."
That's a pretty profound relationship with a TV character, don't you think?
And that was 1984 when Caughey chronicled it. Twenty-five years later, the media is far richer and more complicated, particularly social media. And that is where Fox executives really pushed the envelope with the suicide of Kutner.
In addition to an online memorial, which included an obituary and video tribute with music composed by series star Hugh Laurie, network publicists and series producers created a Facebook page that allowed fans to leave messages as well as read messages from Kut- ner's hospital co-workers.
From the sad music to the memorials and montages of Kutner, it was all intended to allow viewers to participate in rituals of mourning, among the most profound practices in our lives, in cyberspace. As of Friday, more than 25,000 fans of Kutner's had left images and messages at the site. Many of them were from teens and people in their 20s. I wonder how many of those young fans were experiencing emotions as intense as they would if a real-life friend died?
Maybe I am old-media naive, but to me, this is landmark stuff. But then, seeing a tweet (also known as a message on Twitter, for the uninitiated ) from Don Draper, the dashing lead character of AMC's brilliant Mad Men, is enough to make me believe I am going to bump into him the next time I visit a smoke-choked Manhattan bar. Yet I am pretty sure the message was written by a publicist for the company that produces the show.
Readers say they "know" the difference between real and make-believe, but they still experience an emotional response to the death of a TV character. And several understand that Fox somehow upped the ante on our investment in the lives and deaths of our favorite characters last week.
"I think that mourning online is a natural phenomenon. That is how my daughter first learned of the loss of a classmate," Sherry wrote in one of her comments to my blog.
"I don't think it is a problem with knowing the difference between fiction and nonfiction. I think that regardless of whether mourning a fictional character online is right or wrong, Fox has drawn the line in the sand and now we have to decide what to do with it. ... Many adults were confused about the fictional character and the actor Kal Penn, - maybe they are not as smart as the teens who seem to be the main users of Facebook."
Chris, a reader from Kansas, says he is not ashamed to admit that he will miss Kutner - and while the character might be make-believe, the feeling is real.
"I also attach myself with characters on television shows, and am sad to see them or their shows go off the air," he says.
"I think it's easy to do if you invest a lot of time watching the show, and probably talking about it to your family/friends. It's a part of your life, and just like when a real person is part of your life and passes away/moves away, it's easy to feel a sense of loss when they are no longer around."
I'm starting to feel better about Kutner's death - and even Fox's exploitation of it in social media. I love the intense discussion it has generated about the role of new media in our lives.
But I don't think I'm ready yet to see a Kutner tweet from the other side.