You are killing us!

Times Staff Writer

IN a TV world where even Tony Soprano can get shot in the gut in the season opener, nobody is safe. And if Fox's "24" is any indication, not only can any character go at any time, there likely won't be a lack of company.

"Not Edgar!" the show's fans screamed in e-mails to the writers, on Internet blogs and even to other "24" actors on the street last week after Louis Lombardi's nerdy and sweet computer genius inhaled nerve gas and fell to his death as his close friends watched from behind protective glass. Still reeling from that loss, "24" viewers were dealt two more blows Monday night: Lynn McGill (Sean Astin), who annoyed as a boss, redeemed himself by dying to save Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and the rest of the CTU gang from the seeping gas; and Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) died in Bauer's arms at the end of the episode. Almeida was trying to avenge the murder of his wife, Michelle Dessler (Reiko Aylesworth), who died in this season's premiere, marked also by the surprising assassination of former U.S. President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert).

In an already risky industry in which shows get canceled without notice, there is no such thing as job security for actors no matter how beloved their character or how long they have been playing him or her -- even on a hit show. The lack of character-centered dramas in film has allowed for a renaissance in television, but the 200-channel universe has made it tougher to hold the attention of the audience, so writers have had to raise the stakes. For stories that deal with terrorism, crime and even the supernatural, death often becomes a logical outcome.

"You have to grab the audience, and I don't think you have to be sensational, but you have to be emotionally honest no matter what you're doing," "24" executive producer Howard Gordon said. "Shock for shock value will never work if it's not attached to something with emotional integrity. As a writer, it does make you dig a little deeper and look a little harder to get a result."

As audiences are opting to stay out of movie theaters and spend more time on the sofa, shows such as "24," "Lost," "The Shield" and "The Sopranos" are fulfilling the appetite for drama. This renaissance in television also attracts A-list actors, directors and writers who are willing to experiment with genres and storytelling that leaves viewers with their jaws dropped.

"I was out [last Tuesday] with some friends and I had a couple of women come up and say, 'Edgar better not be dead' and I'm like, 'What are you talking to me for?' " said "24's" Bernard, whose Tony Almeida was the only character, besides Jack Bauer, left standing since the series premiered in 2001. "You have no idea what's coming."

Other important players have also passed away on the show -- Jack's wife, Terri, at the end of the first season, for instance. But when Almeida became the fifth main casualty in the span of Day 5's first 13 hours, "24" kicked up the ante as leader of a storytelling shift in Hollywood. At the end of Sunday's season premiere of "The Sopranos," Tony (James Gandolfini) was shot in the stomach by his Uncle Junior, leaving unclear the future of the lead character on the HBO drama that helped set the small screen bloodbath in motion. Two of the original survivors on ABC's "Lost," Boone (Ian Somerhalder) and Shannon (Maggie Grace), have died. Even actors on monster hits with lighter tones aren't exempt: The first season of "Desperate Housewives" concluded with the death of one of the husbands.

"These days, they say the better the character you are, the more chances you have of going because television always has to take it up a notch," said Lombardi, who is so sad over the death of his Edgar that he hasn't watched the episode yet. "It always has to be brought up a level, and the only way to do that is to get rid of characters that people love. When someone like Edgar dies, people take it like they lost a family member. You can really get a reaction out of the audience."

Important characters have been dying on television practically since the small screen was invented, but it used to be that such deaths were precipitated by the actor's desire to leave the show or sometimes the actor's real death. There was the poignant moment in "MASH" in 1975 when fan favorite Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) died in a plane crash; there was Bobby Simone's (Jimmy Smits) excruciating demise on "NYPD Blue" in 1998 and Dr. Anthony Greene's (Anthony Edwards) death by brain tumor on "ER." All instances of the actors wanting to move on. No writer in his right mind would have dreamed of killing Kojak or Baretta or the Fonz just for the sake of telling a good story.

"If you go back and start watching plots and the complexity of television, even from 10 years ago, especially 20 years ago, things have changed pretty radically," said "Lost" executive producer Carlton Cuse. "I think the stability of the natural cast was one of those untouchable things in television. The wisdom was that the audience is investing an hour, the networks are promoting the cast, and you just can't do that. But people have discovered that wisdom isn't true. The episodes where those kinds of deaths happen become more vivid and memorable and part of the mental lexicon."

Indeed, just as fans are sure to remember Adriana (Drea de Matteo) crawling to her death in "The Sopranos" last season, many still recall Dr. Bobby Caldwell (Mark Harmon) on "St. Elsewhere" who walked out the door when he learned he had AIDS in 1986 and never returned; and Rosalind Shays (Diana Muldaur), who wreaked havoc on "L.A. Law" for nearly two years and inadvertently stepped into an empty elevator shaft and fell to her death in 1991.

But those early instances of killing off characters for the story were rare. That pace has greatly stepped up, making actors, even Sutherland, feel vulnerable.

"As an actor, it kind of takes a few minutes to get the courage to read the new script," Sutherland said. "We've always been aware that the real star of '24' is the time format and the show itself, and the idea that I'm the only actor who can carry it or fill that kind of role is ridiculous. What we've found more than anything in the process of making this show is that as long as the quality is good, audiences are incredibly flexible. They will go with you."

Especially in dramas, death becomes a measure of a show's authenticity. Sure, "24" has one of the highest body counts in TV history and plenty of extras died when the nerve gas was released in CTU, but viewers needed to experience the loss of someone they loved to be reminded of the peril that is at the center of the show, Gordon said.

Still, actors and fans alike can be left to wonder if producers are killing fan favorites in the name of good writing or in place of it.

No main character on "The Shield" has died, but when the fifth season ends next Tuesday, that could change. The show's tight-lipped creator, Shawn Ryan, also executive producer of "The Unit," declined to say but did confirm that the topic has come up in the writers' room many times. Ryan's mantra on the subject: A character's death must be inevitable for it not to come across as a stunt.

"We've certainly discussed different kinds of departures on this show and on 'The Unit' as well because that's a team that engages in very dangerous activities," Ryan said. "It probably would be unrealistic to have a huge number of activities where somebody didn't get killed or very badly wounded. But I've never wanted to do something like this to be edgy, or prove how different we can be. There are shows that do that, and I am never impressed with that. And I think, in the end, the fans see right through it."

Gordon agreed. "It's one of those awful things, but it renews the contract with the audience that anything can happen and that the threat is real and it has tragic consequences with people we love and have come to love and no one is safe," he said. "That kind of risk-taking is what makes the show feel real. It gives it blood. Edgar's death was a way to represent to the audience how lethal this attack was.

Other elements may be coming into play as well. After "The Real World" and "Survivor" changed the television landscape by adding a new genre, it effectively created a craving for a metaphorical type of death, the quick and easy eliminations of reality contestants each week.

"There is an exciting element of reality TV, be it 'American Idol,' 'The Bachelor' or 'Survivor,' where every week you know what's going to happen at the end of the episode, and that is that the cast is going to be depleted by one," "Lost" co-creator and executive producer Damon Lindelof said. "No matter what happens in the first 55 minutes of television, the last five minutes you are going to get your blood. There is something to be said for that."

Then there's the other reality. In a post-Sept. 11 world, Americans are more aware than ever that their lives can be in jeopardy at any moment, and evil is not an easy concept to grasp.

"I think we live in a far more dangerous time than we did four years ago, and we know that there are people in the world who would do us harm if they could," Ryan said. "And we hadn't felt that for 10 to 15 years after the Soviet Union fell. So, especially in the shows where there is a sense that the show is bigger than any of the actors, you can take a popular character, make that character an integral part of your show, then lose that character and find a way to change the show a little bit for the positive and keep it fresh.

It's not just fans who mourn. Sutherland, who is also a "24" producer, had such a tough time dealing with Bernard's departure, he kept adding shots to avoid the last scene between Jack and Tony. Couldn't Tony, who had resigned from CTU last season, just have moved to Florida?

"How lucky to play a character where people feel that way," Bernard said. "Every year the story has changed and the character has evolved, and I would much rather have that and have lack of job security than to be playing the same thing over and over for years to come."

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