Have you ever watched someone die? Almost everybody has. Ok, so not in real life but on TV or in a film? Deaths are used by writers to make us laugh or cry, but I've watched two this week which, well, irritated me. Instead of being sucked into the emotional tragedy unfolding before me, I sat muttering ”well that wasn't very realistic”. Now, I am the queen of suspending disbelief- I've watched Neighbours for over 25 years, my Freeview recorder has 169 episodes of Murder, She Wrote on it (Angela Lansbury makes me want to be old) and I believe that Jack Bauer really could do all that AND MORE in 24hrs. But even my imagination couldn’t keep me in TV land when faced with Queen Eva's death in Once Upon a Time this week. I was sucked out of the story and spat out onto the sofa by the absurdity of it. An immaculately beautiful woman imparted an eloquent, heartfelt message before dying in a neat, quick and quiet way. You could almost feel her holding her breath. No death rattle for Queen Eva.
But that was a fairy-tale, she was poisoned, maybe magically cursed people do die just like that. (The Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine was no help in this matter). But Queen Eva wasn't the only irksome death of the week- I felt just as bothered by the departure of Raj from 90210. Yes, my name is Catherine and I watch 90210…it’s like the crack of TV, so bad, yet you just can’t stop it, and your husband doesn't understand why you keep going back to it. Anyways, there I was, enjoying my fix of emotional highs and lows delivered by the beautiful people. Raj was in hospital looking a little hungover. We know he’s close to death, purely because we've been told so, but he's chatting away, being witty, romantic and thoughtful. Then his girl pops out for a second and returns to find him dead. We know he's dead because his eyes are shut and she drops a glass of water. Again it’s neat, quick and quiet. Bothersomely so.
You see people in TV land, like Raj and Eva, die without dying. In the real world, death is an event, but dying is a process. Noisy, irregular breathing, semi-consciousness, confusion, a dry mouth, restlessness- these are often very normal parts of dying.
Yet we don’t often see this on TV, despite the fact that a LOT of people die in soaps. A study of soap characters in the BMJ found that “standardised mortality ratios for characters were among the highest for any occupation yet described”. The authors noted that “Their lives are more dangerous even than those of Formula One racing drivers or bomb disposal experts”. But despite this obsession with death, TV hates people dying. Perhaps because it’s too upsetting? Yet, think of a soap wedding- we expect it to be upsetting, we KNOW there are very few happily ever afters in soap land. TV expends a huge amount of effort in creating drama and wringing every ounce of emotion from an audience. So it seems strange that dying a soap death is as simple and sanitized as you could hope for. Does this suggest dying, more than death, is a taboo too shocking for TV?
I know that reality isn't what these programmes are made for, but they are based firmly in our world. Music we know plays in the pub, there are frequent references to Facebook and everyone in Ramsay Street has an ill-disguised mac book. These shows tell stories about people and they're watched by millions. That means they have incredible potential to influence our expectations of what normal is. Is TV making us think it’s normal to die without dying? If so, a lot of us are ill prepared for when death forces its way from our screens and into our lives.
Think back to the last time you watched someone die in TV or film land. Did you really watch them die, or just see a death?