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8 TV Shows That Killed The Main Character Early

Death is a common dramatic device in TV land, used to raise the stakes in a story or explore how that character’s demise impacts the people on the show. And while killing off the main character isn’t exactly unheard of, it’s still a rare beast.

It’s something that typically happens in later seasons when the actor is bored and wants to move on, or the writers want to reinvent the show. In some cases a show just outgrows the original idea, and the central character becomes surplus to requirements.

Some programmes take it a step further and kill off the lead within the first couple of years, or in the most extremes cases the first few episodes. This is always a bold move, as it risks alienating viewers who’ve grown attached to the character and might feel betrayed by their death. But it’s always guaranteed to inspire a reaction.

When it’s done correctly it adds a sense of weight and consequence, but when done badly it just comes off as cheap shock value. It’s a tricky balance, but the best examples have been able to pull off the ultimate gamble and make the show stronger as a result.

Naturally, it should really go without saying that SPOILERS lie within.

8. Love/Hate – Darren (Lifespan: Three Seasons)

RTE Television

Controversial Irish drama Love/Hate takes a gritty look at Dublin’s criminal underworld, as seen through the eyes of naive gang member Darren. Or at least that’s how it began.

The first two seasons followed Darren through various betrayals and heartbreaks, including losing his girlfriend over his lifestyle and murdering his evil boss. It also explored his friendship with side character Nidge, who became so popular with viewers the show gradually shifted focus towards him instead.

As a result Darren became more of a side character in his own show, and after more heartache he ended season three with a bullet in the head after Nidge betrayed him to save his own skin.

Love/Hate is a prime example of a show starting out with one premise before evolving into something else. Darren’s death underlined the cruelty of the crime underworld, and the following seasons followed Nidge’s rise to power as well as the impact of Darren’s death on his conscience. 

7. Boardwalk Empire – Jimmy Darmody (Lifespan: Two Seasons)

HBO

Jimmy Darmody had a rough life, with his traumatic war experiences and some creepy mommy issues. He also had a complicated relationship with father figure Nucky, a corrupt politician and gangster. Most of the show’s drama centered around this, as they went back and forth between being allies and enemies.

This came to a boil In season two when Jimmy struck out on his own, vying for power and even plotting to have Nucky killed. However, the two men seemed to make peace towards the end of the season after they both suffered losses. Jimmy agreed to meet Nucky under the impression they could reconcile, only for Nucky to coldly execute him with two shots to the head.

His death haunted Nucky for the next three seasons until, in a moment of beautiful karma, Jimmy’s teen son shot him dead in revenge.

Boardwalk creator Terrence Winter states Jimmy was always going to die, although rumour’s persist that actor Michael Pitt was difficult to work with, leading to Jimmy dying earlier than intended.

6. Valerie – Valerie Hogan (Lifespan: Two Seasons)

NBC

In terms of job security it’s a safe bet that if a show is named after you, you’re not going get fired. A sound theory, but unfortunately for actress Valerie Harper it proved incorrect. Harper played the title role in cheesy 80’s sitcom Valerie, a show about an overworked mother trying to balance a career with raising three kids (including a young Jason Bateman).

The show was a hit but Harper got into an ugly contract dispute at the start of season three. When they failed to reach terms she refused to come back. This led to more negotiating and she eventually returned to record a new episode, only to be fired and replaced with another actress.

At the start of season three the viewer is informed Valerie died in a car crash months before, and Valerie’s sister was the new head of the family. The show was renamed Valerie’s Family to reflect this, but after Harper launched a high profile lawsuit – which she won – the show was finally redubbed The Hogan Family.

It ran for another four seasons, which isn’t bad for a show that lost the title character.

5. Doctor Who – The Ninth Doctor (Lifespan: One Season)

BBC

While it’s true The Doctor never “dies” exactly, when Doctor Who makes the switch from one actor to another it is, in effect, killing that version of the character. Perhaps the most surprising early exit was Christopher Eccleston, who took over when the show was rebooted (regenerated?) in 2005.

Eccleston’s whimsical take was an instant hit with audiences and (most) fans, with the chemistry between him and Billie Piper being a big reason viewers were drawn back to the show. But Eccleston made it clear he was only staying for a season, and in the final episode The Ninth Doctor absorbs lethal energy from a time vortex (long story) to save his companion Rose, leading to a David Tennant shaped face-lift.

A solid reason for Eccleston’s departure has never been given, with everything from an exhausting filming schedule to creative differences being cited. Despite this the show continued to be a huge success following his demise with Tennant, Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi all making their mark on the character.

4. 24 – Teri Bauer (Lifespan: One Season)

20th Century Fox Television

It’s almost hard to remember that 24 started life as a small scale thriller, and not a show about the implausible adventures of the immortal Jack Bauer.  On Day One Jack was tasked with stopping the assassination of a presidential candidate and his wife Teri was just as much of a main character, with the show dividing attention between their intersecting stories.

Poor Teri had an all out terrible day in season one. She and her daughter were kidnapped, threatened with death repeatedly, she was raped, she had to kill in self defense, she learned Jack had an affair with a colleague, she briefly got plot convenient amnesia and to cap it off she was murdered in the final episode. By Jack’s mistress no less, who turned out to be a traitor.

Teri’s death was a stunning final note to the season, and over the years 24 proved to be a brutal place for any character not named Jack Bauer, with shocking deaths becoming an important part of the show’s formula.

3. Game Of Thrones – Ned Stark (Lifespan: Nine Episodes)

HBO

Game Of Thrones takes great pleasure in building up likable, sympathetic heroes that audiences adore, and then killing them in the cruellest ways imaginable. Google The Red Wedding for more information.

The show made this clear in the first season with poor Ned Stark. He tried to be a good Hand of the King, but when that King is douchey little Joffery that’s easier said then done. Ned is sentenced to death when he learns the icky truth about Joffrey’s paternity, but is promised mercy if he confesses to treason. He reluctantly agrees to avoid a potential war but Joffrey reneges, and Ned is publicly beheaded.

Sean Bean dying is never a huge surprise but Ned was billed as the lead character and the show’s moral centre. Killing him in such a heartbreaking way sent shock-waves, with his death serving as a stark – pun intended – reminder that in the world of Game Of Thrones it was the good that suffered and the evil who prospered.

Which is something fans have learned the hard way, year after year.

2. Strike Back – John Porter (Lifespan: Seven Episodes)

BBC Worldwide

Hunky Richard Armitage played John Porter in the first season of action show Strike Back, an SAS soldier haunted by the death of his squad years before. He gets back into action when tasked with hunting down terrorists and the series ended on a cliffhanger, with Porter going on the run having made powerful political enemies.

However Armitage’s commitment to The Hobbit Trilogy meant he wasn’t going to be available for season two. The decision was quickly made to bring him back for a cameo in season two where he’s executed by terrorists with a shot to the head, and then introduce two new heroes to track down his killers.

While it was sad to lose Armitage the show really came into it’s own in the second year. It significantly increased the action, scope and gratuitous nudity (male and female), and the interplay between the new leads became the heart of the show.

1. Spooks – Helen Flynn (Lifespan: Two Episodes)

BBC

Spooks made record time with killing off a lead, and gets bonus points for doing it in the most nightmarish way possible.

In only the second episode of season one the character of Helen Flynn was subjected to a fate so nasty it received a record number of complaints at the BBC. In this scene she and follow agent Tom Quinn are captured by a twisted racist, who tortures her using a deep fat fryer. He dips her arm in to get information from Tom, and failing that he dips in her entire head, before putting her out of her misery with a gunshot.

This moment had been planned from the start by creator David Wolstencroft to let viewers know Spooks wasn’t a glossy, lightweight show. The characters were in real danger and there would be no last minute rescues. Although the scene left a bad taste in the mouths of viewers, Spooks quickly proved to be a gripping thriller that didn’t need to rely solely on shock tactics.

 

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