As television emerged from its infancy into a billion-dollar business, it has became a world of big studios, big stars and multi-year contracts.
That evolution also neutered much of the jeopardy in TV drama. TV characters in popular shows never die. And even when a threat looms, an information-overloaded audience usually knows whether an actor is still employed or has quit a show.
It's always bad news killing off lead characters... Wednesday night's shocking Offspring episode.
A new generation of American dramas is bucking that trend, however, American Horror Story, The Walking Dead and Homeland chief among them. They, and others, have for the first time in years constructed a television chess board where no piece – king or pawn – is safe.
Australian producer John Edwards has also worked hard to keep real jeopardy in his television dramas. Tangle and Love My Way both featured sudden, shocking character deaths. Another of his shows, Offspring, lost a major character this week.
When actors leave popular TV programs, the inclination has always been to leave the door open. Few producers and TV networks want to permanently sever ties with a popular actor. But sometimes the decision is taken, for the story, or occasionally by an actor determined to close the door, to kill the character.
Television's iconic character deaths
A Country Practice (1985): Molly Jones (Anne Tenney) lost a battle with leukaemia.
It's a big call, but a brave one. And, when done well, it can deliver an emotional punch that echoes through a show's shelf life and, occasionally, through the annals of TV history.
Few can forget the death of Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) on M*A*S*H, announced to a silent emergency room by Radar O'Reilly (Gary Burghoff). Or the apparent death of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) on The Sopranos, a series conclusion which is still debated.
"There's a tremendous amount of regret involved any time you kill someone off," says Robert Kirkman, the creator of The Walking Dead. "I'm bummed out we don't get to work with Jon Bernthal [whose character Shane Walsh was killed in the show's second season] and it's kind of crappy he's not around. But we don't regret telling that story."
Lost executive producer Carlton Cuse says the move shatters the audience's expectations, but in a good way.
"If you watch CSI: Miami and someone puts a gun to David Caruso's head, you know he's not going to be shot," Cuse says. "Now I think people are reaching further narratively [and] these moments are really good for television, because as a storyteller you want to attack and break up those conventions the audience has in their minds."
The honour roll of fallen characters is far longer than you might expect, from Thirtysomething's Gary Shepherd (Peter Horton) to Torchwood's Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd), with LA Law's Rosalind Shays (Diana Muldaur), Boardwalk Empire's Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and Big Love's Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) in between.
The most recent, and brutal, example is the US series Game of Thrones, which in an episode titled The Rains of Castamere played out a scene known as the "red wedding" – a massacre which saw a chunk of its key characters slaughtered.
While the event had been chronicled in the novels on which the series is based, an extraordinarily large slice of the audience was not expecting it. And the shocking impact was almost unprecedented.
It contrasts dramatically with another grand soap opera, Dynasty, which had its own wedding massacre back in 1985, when the Carrington heiress Amanda (Catherine Oxenberg) married a European prince. A political uprising followed and rebels fired on the congregation. Only two characters – both of them peripheral – characters - died, and the main cast, as they always did in those days, emerged unscathed.
Though it is a new generation of brave US dramas dialling up the tension and putting the major characters at real risk, a glance at the pop culture history books reveals Australia was a pioneer in the field. Here are 10 iconic character deaths on the small screen. And it all begins with a girl named Franky ...
Franky Doyle (Prisoner, 1979)
When actress Carol Burns decided to leave Prisoner in its first season, the producers took the then-bold step of killing off the character, a lesbian biker who had, in a short time, become one of the show's truly iconic characters. Franky escaped from Wentworth Detention Centre with cellmate Doreen (Colette Mann) in tow and, after a showdown with police, was brutally gunned down.
Grace Sullivan (The Sullivans, 1979)
The matriarch of the Sullivans – Aussie battlers who grappled with World War II and saw their sons go off to fight – Grace (Lorraine Bayly) flew to London to bring her wounded son, John (Andrew McFarlane) home to Melbourne. Tragically the hospital was struck during an air raid and Grace was killed. Her body was returned to Melbourne in one of the show's most solemn episodes.
Adric (Doctor Who, 1982)
Like the time-travelling Doctor, his companions always seemed to live to fight another day. Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) was not so lucky, stranded on a crashing space freighter commandeered by the nasty Cybermen in a plot to destroy the earth. Given the show's young audience, Adric's death was a real jolt. His final episode finished with a silent credit roll, the only time in five decades the Doctor Who credits have been aired with no sound.
Molly Jones (A Country Practice, 1985)
When well-liked actress Anne Tenney decided to leave A Country Practice at the height of its popularity, it was decided she would be given one final dramatic storyline: a battle with leukaemia which, ultimately, she lost. Her final scene, filmed from her perspective, in which she watches her husband and daughter play until the screen dimmed to darkness, is one of the show's most memorable.
Lieutenant Tasha Yar (Star Trek: The Next Generation, 1987)
The young, athletic security chief of the Enterprise bowed out during the show's first season when actress Denise Crosby decided to leave because she was unhappy with the show's writing. The response was fast and furious: Lieutenant Yar met a sudden, brutal - and some would argue, pointless – end at the hands of a gooey tar monster on the planet Vagra II.
Bobby Simone (NYPD Blue, 1998)
Simone, played by Jimmy Smits, joined NYPD Blue as Andy Sipowicz's (Dennis Franz) partner after his first partner, John Kelly (David Caruso) left. Simone was much loved by the show's fans, but in the show's sixth season he contracted a heart infection. A transplant offered some hope but his body rejected the new organ and he died. The New York Times saluted the show for "violating truisms about television heroes".
Maude Flanders (The Simpsons, 2000)
The wife of the Simpsons' do-good neighbour, Ned Flanders, Maude was killed off in a speedway accident when voice actor Maggie Roswell quit after a pay dispute. Executive producer Mike Scully said it offered "a chance for one of our regular characters [Ned] to face a challenge and grow in a new direction". Oddly enough, Roswell returned in 2002 and has since voiced Maude in flashbacks and as a ghost.
Maggie Doyle (Blue Heelers, 2000)
At the height of her personal popularity as girl-next-door police constable Maggie Doyle, actress Lisa McCune decided to leave the series. After obtaining a computer disk with incriminating evidence on it, she was shot in a hail of bullets and killed. Her killer was later revealed to be her brother Mick, a corrupt detective who had killed her to protect the information on the disk.
Matthew Crawley (Downton Abbey, 2013)
This one we might have seen coming, as actor Dan Stevens' rising star and the pull of Hollywood would no doubt bring pressure to bear on the show's producers. After his three-year contract expired, Stevens opted out and the producers decided to kill off his character, Matthew Crawley, in a car accident.
Meg Jackson (Wentworth, 2013)main
Foxtel's highly anticipated reboot of Prisoner featured the return of the original show's main characters, including rock solid officer Meg Jackson, played this time by Catherine McClements. But the producers took the bold step of killing her in the opening episode. (In the original series, it was her husband, Bill, not her, who was killed in a riot.) Meg's death set the tone for the series, and declared up front that no one was safe.