Sweeps of Death

It’s May sweeps and networks are culling the cast herds.

Television is famously emulative so showrunners have jumped on the Sopranos’ hearse.It’s been reported that Heroes, Jericho, Lost andSmallville will all bury a character (or two) during sweeps. Stargate Atlantis will soon lose, then later regain (sort of), one of their most likeable characters, Dr. Carson Beckett.

Offing audience favorites is the anti-intuitive approach to attracting and building a loyal viewership.Granted, the technique works for a few well-crafted series, most of them found on cable.

The best use of character death this season -maybe ever -is actually a last season fratricide,the wrenching passing of The Shield’sLemansky. This stripped down, multilayered scene is one of television’s most devastating. “My favorite,” Lem whispers, as he peeks into a bag that holds his last meal - spare and heartbreaking. This stunning television moment works because it’s the culmination of years of painstaking plot and character development.

As the current season unfolds, Lem haunts, infusing plot and driving motive. The reverb will be felt for a very long time.

On shows like The Sopranos, The Shield and The Wire death is rarely frivolous. Death serves a much larger story purpose.

But going “death supernova” just for the sake of a sweeps stunt runs the risk of damaging shows for the long term. Television viewing is an investment of time and emotion. When cast members are carelessly tossed, audiences can become distrustful and emotionally exhausted and drift away.

Unfortunately, the most sympathetic and identifiable characters are often marked. It’s a surefire way to tug at the heartstrings.

Will the character deaths in upcoming sweeps episodes have meaning and purpose beyond the initial dramatic flare? Or will the deaths be a brief one-off, the character quickly forgotten? Most, I fear, will be one-offs.

But death isn’t just limited to the scripted dramas. It’s for real on Bravo’s series Workout. Trainer Doug Blasdell died suddenly several months ago and the bad news is delivered in tonight’s episode.

Now in its second season, Workout tracks the doings inside a trendy LA training spa, Sky Sport. Workout is a guilty pleasure, principally because star Jackie Warner is a smoky-voiced, telegenic (and lately) vixen.Warner is genuine and sometimes seems to forget that the cameras are rolling. Her energy carries the series through the rough spots.

Like all reality shows, some of the conflicts feel staged. But authentic moments still abound. In therapy, Warner can’t hide the pain she feels over her mother’s disapproval. At a mountain retreat led by Warner, some surprising revelations surface when clients try to sort out their emotional connections to food.

Trainer Brian Peeler, the North Carolina native who brings a touch of Camp Lejeune charm to his workouts, warns fans on his blog that tonight’s episode is going to be one of the hardest things you have ever had to watch.”