How Much is too Much?

Blog No. 135

The other night, after a wedding rehearsal (not mine) and a lovely dinner with the family and friends from that event, I came home rather late and decided to catch up on a few shows. There was no reason for me to do it. It was already 10:30 (or nearly there) and I strive to get to bed before midnight. Besides, I am perpetually behind on my writing and spend far too much time watching TV shows. That evening though, I was tired and didn’t think I could muster the focus to get any work done. Along with being a lazy bum, I was down to the last one or two episodes of the shows I watch, so I was anxious, and I know other people in the house had seen them, so I wanted to avoid spoilers. One of the shows was Silicon Valley, a fun, tense show by Mike Judge, and the other was Game of Thrones, which is probably know and watched by everyone reading this blog. For the sake of those readers, I will do my best to avoid spoilers, but likely something is going to slip out, so brace yourself, or just skip this one for later.

My major point is about the show that lives in an imagined past filled with a few struggling people dealing with a ton of horrible people, though I have a few comments on Silicon Valley too. Game of Thrones is known for their merciless slaughtering of characters. Initially adopted from George R.R. Martin, the writer of the books, the shows creators have now taken it upon themselves to slaughter people at their own whim. Where George held the sword of Damocles over his characters to create tension, doubt, and anguish for the readers, the show’s creators have become much more vicious. The technique of killing off major characters is not new; Joss Whedon is notorious for it. He did it in Buffy (so I’ve heard), he did it in Rosanne (look it up), and damn him, he did it on Firefly (and its movie adaptation Serenity). In the past, characters have been killed off on television due to actors dyeing, moving on, or even contract disputes. Lt. Colonel Henry Blake on M.A.S.H., James Evans, Sr. from Good Times, and Ernie Pantusso on Cheers, are some famous examples. I’m not sure who was the first to use it as a story telling technique first, or when it started to be more widely used, but my money is on soap operas.

Silicon Valley has suffered one of those forced deaths with an actor dying. It dramatically changed that dynamic of the show, and created a weak spot hastily covered by a lesser character. I don’t blame the actor or the writers, it’s a tough situation, but a fact is a fact (and really, trying to replace an extreme character with another, similarly extreme character is a neon Band-Aid). Still, the show is entertaining. Rather than use the deaths of characters to build tension and keep things fresh, they work on the ebb and flow of failure and success. The team is set up as perpetual underdogs with each victory bringing the attention of even larger prey. It’s sometimes tedious, but the minor victories, team dynamic, and promise that with more hard work and brainstorming, a miracle can make their dreams come true, keeps me watching (and rooting for them).

Game of Thrones, on the other hand, takes the route of a realistic bloodbath. It’s a regular routine at this point, each episode, a character, minor or major, is killed or maimed. At the end of the season, a bunch of people die in a myriad of ways. It makes sense with it being such a brutal world, but it’s getting to a point where those deaths don’t matter anymore. The shock is gone, the tension is gone, and the repetition is starting to drain. How many main characters can you kill before the viewers have no protagonist to follow or root for? Killing major characters can be effective. It keeps the story fresh and keeps the readers guessing (and actually fearing for their favorite character’s life) but doing it too often is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Doesn’t the audience need at least one lifeline to cling to?

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