A few weeks ago I (Caroline) wondered why there wasn't an easily accessible list of TV deaths, even if just for the past TV season.
Now I know exactly why nobody tackled this task.
Television has never been more prolific, sensational, or ambitious than it is right now, and for some reason, that’s also meant a dramatic spike in characters leaving their shows in body bags.
But how many major characters, exactly, does TV actually kill off? To find out, I spent weeks combing through television schedules, plot summaries, IMDB credits, and painstakingly detailed fan pages. In the end, I tallied up all the deaths I could find from the 2015-'16 television season. (For more on the criteria I used, please see below.)
Here is a chart of our findings with the help of Josh Rosenblat, Javier Zarracina and Sarah Frostenson (plus an obvious spoiler warning):
242 characters died
As you can probably tell, TV has become a big fan of playing the death card.
As Vox's Todd VanDerWerff points out in his extensive piece on television's recent approach to death, high-concept series like Game of Thrones and The 100 have steadily gotten more mileage and attention by making death a constant threat, or teasing it in cliffhangers to keep people invested, as The Walking Dead did to much confusion at the end of its past season.
And just last week, ABC's canceled drama Nashville scrapped a happy ending for an ambiguous one that held a major character's life in the balance, hoping that another outlet might pick up the show and finish telling its story.
But the major uproar came earlier this spring, when a startling rash of character deaths — especially those of prominent female characters — prompted incredible fan backlash.
The biggest outcry came via The CW's The 100, which killed off a prominent gay woman in a depressingly clichéd way, and Fox's Sleepy Hollow, which dismissed its protagonist, played by Nicole Beharie, amid fierce rumors that Beharie had had enough and asked to be written out and her superiors were none too sad to see her go. A single week in April found seven (7) major, recurring female characters who met untimely ends.
Gradually, a consistent charge emerged from the whorl of outrage: TV has consistently and disproportionately killed female, LGBTQ, and minority characters.
As Mo Ryan recently wrote at Variety, it’s been feeling more and more like the only characters who are safe from needless deaths are straight, white men. Women, minorities, and LGBTQ characters are already underrepresented, or even misrepresented, on television, so fan frustration over their apparently lopsided rate of death only keeps growing.
"A lot of shows pride themselves on the idea that 'anyone can die,'" Ryan wrote, "but is that actually true?"
Reading that column, I realized I didn't actually know the answer, and I decided to find out.
In my subsequent deep dive of the 2015-'16 TV season, I counted more than 230 deaths — and I'm confident there are still more.
(If you believe you know of a character who fits the above qualifications and is not on my list, please email me, and I will update: email@example.com)
While figuring out whether to include a death on this list, I set the following criteria:
The death had to occur within the window of the 2015-'16 television season, which the industry (including the Emmys) defines as June 1, 2015, through May 31, 2016. (Deaths from seasons that happened in June 2015 but on shows that primarily aired in another TV season — like Shireen Baratheon on Game of Thrones, which was part of the show's fifth season that mostly aired in the 2014-'15 season — were not included.)
The show containing the death had to air in primetime on an American network or be an original series on a streaming platform.
The character had to appear in at least three episodes of the show.
The death had to be final. Cliffhangers were tentatively included, unless a show's creative team confirmed a return (as did Homeland's Alex Gansa regarding a possible death). Any reappearances by a killed character on the show thereafter could only be in flashbacks, hallucinations, or possible time travel fuckery (looking at you, Legends of Tomorrow). This meant some shows with a seemingly high body count — like 2015's American Horror Story: Hotel — didn't contribute as many deaths as they otherwise might have.
At first, I thought these would be enough qualifications to keep myself from drowning in data.
I was so, so wrong.
Originally I had planned to tally up TV deaths for at least the past five years. But the staggering number of both shows and character deaths on TV right now eventually made me admit that my time and resources could only allow for the past year alone — which says something about just how much TV has come to love death as a narrative device.
For proof, you can look to TVLine's May sweeps scorecards, which have kept track of significant events happening on TV during the final weeks of a season since 2012. In just the past five years, May sweeps deaths have almost tripled, from 20 in 2012 to 57 in 2016.
Yes, there's more television in general now than there was five years ago, but as VanDerWerff points out, going from 280 scripted shows in 2012 to 409 in 2015 is a significant increase, but nowhere near triple.
So what does it all mean? For more, let's dive into the numbers.
While this chart has some room for change, there is enough data across broadcast networks, streaming platforms, and cable (both premium and basic) to see trends and draw conclusions.
About 56 percent of deaths were male characters, and 44 percent women.
42 percent were straight white men; 24 percent were straight white women.
26 percent were minorities (both men and women, LGBTQ included).
About 10 percent were LGBTQ women; 3 percent were LGBTQ men.
26 percent of characters were shot; 16 percent were stabbed; 9 percent killed themselves (including for the greater good). The other minor categories for causes of death included supernatural causes, illness, explosions, poisoning, suffocation, and beating.
There are a few quick conclusions to draw from this raw data:
While straight, white men represent the largest demographic group on this chart, it's important to note that straight, white men are far more represented on television than any other demographic, period.
On this point of proportion, the statistics do back up those who cry foul on television killing off too many queer women. Unless we're talking about Orange Is the New Black, shows aren't likely to have more than one or two queer women characters recurring throughout a season; that certainly doesn't hold true for straight white men, who still dominate cast breakdowns. So if this graph were to reflect the actual ratio of straight white male characters to queer women characters, that difference would almost definitely be far greater. A full 10 percent of deaths being queer women is astonishing given how few of them recur on shows in general.
TV sure likes to shoot and stab people, huh?
One last aspect of this project I have to address: Once again, it only tallies characters who had been in three episodes or more. If I were logging all the deaths to occur on television, I probably would have given up four episodes into Law and Order: SVU. There are, quite simply, too many.
And so those nameless or very minor characters who die randomly, all those corpses of the week and cannon fodder, were not counted — and they themselves paint a picture of just whom the TV industry sees as disposable.
But I still caught sight of them as I compiled this list. As I scoured hundreds of show summaries, character breakdowns, and IMDB credits, I realized that the overwhelming majority of tossed-off deaths belonged to women. I saw the same clause over and over again: "When a woman is found killed..."
But under my own parameters, all those disposable women didn't count.
The result is that a few shows that I know killed a disproportionate number of women — like ABC's failed serial killer drama Wicked City — managed to squeak by with only a couple of deaths logged, despite a blatantly flippant attitude toward dumping women by the wayside.
This qualification is also at least in part responsible for the fact that recurring/regular female characters were killed off at a lower rate than men. There are simply fewer regular/recurring female characters — and many shows were already killing women left and right, within an episode or two of introducing them in the first place.
So while I was initially surprised to see women at 44 percent of the total deaths versus men at 56 percent, the sheer amount of death I had to wade through made me come out the other side of this project possibly even more cynical than when I started.
Even though my job is largely watching and writing about television, I had no idea just how much death TV doles out every week, across all genres and networks. For every death that a show treated with significance, there were easily 10 more that were used as basic plot complications and so-called "shocking" twists.
But if TV wants to use death to add jolts of intrigue, then its shows need to take a hard look at just how often they go to that narrative well as a matter of course. Death might have been a game changer back when it was rare for a show to play that card, but now it's not only expected — it's straight up boring.