From Roseanne’s opioid overdose to MASH’s shocking discussion of wartime, television can use an actor’s departure to produce wild results.
An actor might have to depart a television show for any reason, resulting in their character being written out of upcoming episodes. Most of the time there’s still a way for that character to come back, whether it’s for a full-time return or just a special episode appearance. But sometimes a character is written out in such a way that any return is impossible — by killing them off. And this can create moments that stick with the audience long after the series ends.
5) Roseanne Conner, Roseanne
Sitcom splash The Conners is on its third season, but the loss of their family matriarch is the reason why it’s not Season 13 of Roseanne. The metamorphosis happened in May 2018 when series star Roseanne Barr parted ways with ABC after controversy. Initially canceled outright, the remaining cast worked with the network to retool the series into something that would explore the remaining Connor family members and the challenges they face in today’s society. To emphasize their commitment to this new premise, Roseanne Conner was revealed to have died of an accidental opioid overdose in the premiere, opening a discussion about the very real epidemic of addiction happening in America.
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4) Rosalind Shays, L.A. Law
This classic legal drama rarely shied away from the topics scorching the ’80s, from the still-taboo AIDS epidemic to LGBT rights. Its cast of hard-nosed lawyers were common staples of series creator Steven Bochco, who also created the equally hard-nosed cop drama NYPD Blue. Rosalind Shays was the cold heart of five seasons of intra-firm conflict, a legal eagle both brutally competent and ambitious. Audiences loved and loathed her in equal measure, but when it came time for her to depart the show, the method of it marked a downhill slide for the series. Rosalind and her partner are waiting for an elevator, chatting about matters both legal and personal. As the doors slide open. Rosalind casually steps into a waiting Looney Tunes gag. Unlike Wily E Coyote, she plummets down a gaping elevator shaft to her death.
3) Lucy Knight, ER
The popular medical drama’s rotating cast of characters meant there was always someone for the audience to root for. Not every character worked out, though. Mid-series med student Lucy wasn’t a strong audience draw, and her actress, Kellie Martin, was having a rough time behind the scenes with medical woes of her own. But the method of Lucy’s departure was horrifying, and worse, it became a long-running emotional crutch for the far more popular lead Noah Wyle. After Wyle’s Dr. Carter blows off Lucy’s multiple requests to have a psych exam on a troubled patient, he enters a quiet exam room. When that same patient attacks him, Carter’s tumble reveals Lucy, gasping for life. Less well-remembered is how Lucy enters emergency surgery, only to have a blood clot finish the job.
2) Pierce Hawthorne, Community
Community‘s comedy relied on the humor of its often abrasive interpersonal connections, but it’s a surprise to nobody that Chevy Chase’s arrogant, almost sociopathic millionaire Pierce Hawthorne became the place where the rubber hit the road. Chase’s history of being difficult is a given, but tensions on the set meant he departed in the middle of its fourth season. Written out abruptly, at first Hawthorne simply graduated from the college. The early fifth season episode, “Cooperative Polygraphy,” follows up on the earlier revelation that Hawthorne died. The executor of Hawthorne’s will drunkenly reveals that Hawthorne died from the severe dehydration he incurred by “preparing” a multitude of sperm samples for the rest of the group.
1) Colonel Henry Blake, M*A*S*H*
The third season of this classic wartime black comedy saw a watershed moment in TV history. Already unafraid of discussing the costs and horrors of war, the stakes went up with the departure of Colonel Blake. Played by McLean Stevenson, Blake was to see his time in the army at an end and be flown home to enjoy time with his family. Behind the scenes, Stevenson wasn’t comfortable with the ensemble nature of the show and asked to be let out of his contract. Seeing an opportunity, the show used his exit to tell a chilling but realistic tale of wartime. Hard at work in the operating theatre, Radar arrives with a message for the medical camp. Read aloud, it unexpectedly revealed that Blake’s plane was shot down over the water, and that there were no survivors.
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