Gilligan’s Island Syndrome

How killing off main characters made TV fun again.

By Jeremy Glass

Art is an ever-evolving platform. The change in film and television is one the world has sat back and enjoyed. Up until recently, it seemed TV was caught in a non-evolving plateau, a plateau I have lovingly named “Gilligan’s Island Syndrome.”

Gilligan’s Island was a program where the audience willingly accepted that the marooned passengers of the S.S. Minnow would never get off the island. Ever. Not only that, they knew that no one would ever die. The Skipper wasn’t going to suffer from malnutrition and pass in his sleep, Mrs. Howell would never overdose on pills to escape her horrible reality, and Gilligan would certainly never get eaten by a shark. These facts were readily accepted and, for a total of 98 episodes, nothing REALLY happened. Gilligan’s Island Syndrome. Obviously, this was the 1960’s, when you couldn’t really make a TV show where main characters were threatened with death—and if they did die, it all turned out to be the pipe dream of an Autistic kid with a snow globe.

Without diving into the difference between sitcoms and dramas, I’m happy to say that the syndrome has been cured. I’d like to think it started happening with Lost. That was the first time I had ever heard of main characters dying, or being threatened with death, in every episode. I mean, technically, everyone died at the end of Lost. Or were they dead the entire time? I still don’t know – someone explain that to me using puppets.

Every episode was exciting, because I had no idea what was going to happen or who was going to be safe; finally, a show that played into my bloodlust for fictional people. I remember the episode that really got to me was the one where Charlie died (my apologies to those who haven’t seen Lost yet, just Wikipedia it and move on). Throughout the series, relatively minor characters had been dying: the annoying guy, his annoying sister, that Canadian guy – but when Charlie, a main character who had driven many of the show’s previous plot lines, died – television went through a permanent change.

Now, as I’m knee deep in shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, I’ve become enthralled that writers, producers, and TV viewers in general have decided to take more chances. Little inklings of this change was seen in the early 2000’s, Friends had characters get married, Chandler took a job in Oklahoma, and didn’t Rachel have a baby? Imagine if they went full throttle and there was an episode where Monica got addicted to meth, and every episode after that was her falling into a cycle of trying to get high.

Consequence has become a major factor in deciding the seasons of TV shows—if a character dies we find out it happens because of their actions. Television has become self-aware and mirrors the real-life circumstantial events that would occur in real life if someone, for instance, fucked something up badly. Breaking Bad, a show that has captivated me since my little brother forced it into my life, has taught me a lot about how to write story lines based purely on consequence and foreshadowing. I feel like I can watch three episodes of that show with the knowledge that it’s setting up for something incredible to happen. Gilligan’s Island Syndrome’s only promise to a TV series was an eventual fizzling out and ultimately, cancellation. With shows wising up and airing for a selected amount of seasons, we’re going to have way less horrible spin-offs and knock-offs…like The Bradys or The Lone Gunmen or even The Golden Palace. I extend my hand with a friendly handshake to the television shows that are alright with not butting into a franchise and losing artistic credibility. It’s like that quote by that guy…about burning and fading away. Who said that? Oh right, Don Cheadle.

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