‘Dis­pos­able’ women?

TV wives keep dy­ing on shows cen­tred on male ac­tors


The wives of male char­ac­ters on tele­vi­sion shows are hav­ing a rough year.

Three shows — Blue Bloods, Kevin Can Wait and Ray Donovan — re­cently killed off prom­i­nent fe­male char­ac­ters to power plots re­volv­ing around the show’s lead­ing men.

The spate of deaths caused Philadel­phia In­quirer tele­vi­sion critic Ellen Gray to de­clare her un­hap­pi­ness with “TV’s long love af­fair with dead moth­ers” in a col­umn.

“As long as I can re­mem­ber, there have been dead moms on tele­vi­sion,” Gray told The Washington Post in a phone in­ter­view.

It’s a prac­tice stretch­ing back decades. In the lon­grun­ning western Bo­nanza, which aired for 1959 to 1973, one con­sis­tent plot was the char­ac­ter Lit­tle Joe’s in­abil­ity to find a ro­man­tic part­ner. “Ev­ery time it seemed like Lit­tle Joe would be happy, his wife or girl­friend would have to die,” Gray said.

The 1960s gave rise to shows in which chil­dren were be­ing raised by sin­gle men. In the Courtship of Ed­die’s Fa­ther, which aired from 1963 to 1972, Tom Cor­bett (Bill Bixby) is a mag­a­zine pub­lisher and wid­ower rais­ing a young son. And on Fam­ily Af­fair, which aired from 1966 to 1971, Bill Davis (Brian Keith) is a bach­e­lor sud­denly faced with rais­ing his three or­phaned nieces and neph­ews.

The trope, or cliche, of a plot­line cre­ated by a dead wife and mom ex­ploded in the 1980 and 1990s, birthing such shows as Diff’rent Strokes, My Two Dads, My Three Sons, Who’s the Boss? and Full House, ac­cord­ing to Richard Thomp­son, direc­tor of the Bleier Cen­ter for Tele­vi­sion and Pop­u­lar Cul­ture at Syra­cuse Uni­ver­sity. Three shows — (clock­wise from top) Kevin Can Wait, Blue Bloods and Ray Donovan — re­cently fell back on the tired TV trope of killing off moth­ers and wives.

Thomp­son said when shows run for sev­eral years, they of­ten run out of sto­ries to tell and need to pivot. If this in­cludes cast changes, of­ten it’s the women who will be writ­ten off the show — and if the women are moth­ers and spouses, then there’s an added emo­tional punch.

“It is true that when the ca­su­alty list starts to be de­vised, the fe­males are more likely to be on it,” Thomp­son told The Washington Post. “That’s be­cause you’ve al­ready got built into the equa­tion a gen­der pref­er­ence for male char­ac­ters” car­ried over from decades of scripted tele­vi­sion that re­volved around men.

In most of these shows, he said, the “fe­males char­ac­ters have al­ready been sub­or­di­nated.”

“If the ti­tle of a show is Ray Donovan, you can’t kill off Ray,” he said.

These deaths could be the dy­ing gasps of an old trope, though. The last decade brought shows fea­tur­ing fe­male drug deal­ers, lawyers, de­tec­tives and doc­tors — lead­ing roles tra­di­tion­ally played by men. Most of these char­ac­ters were not sim­ply de­fined by mother­hood or their ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships with men.

“In the ‘50s, the fe­male char­ac­ters were gen­er­ally the wife and mother,” Thomp­son said, adding “if you had sin­gle women, they didn’t want to be sin­gle.”

To­day, Or­ange is the New Black, a show about a fe­male prison, is one of Net­flix’s crown jew­els, and HBO’s Big Lit­tle Lies, a mur­der mys­tery fea­tur­ing three fe­male leads, won eight Em­mys last month.

“Over the last 10 years or so, TV has be­come a place where great ac­tresses of a cer­tain age can come to be more than just the sup­port­ive wife (or the nag­ging wife), and play the com­pli­cated lead them­selves,” Alan Sepin­wall, tele­vi­sion critic and au­thor of The Rev­o­lu­tion Was Tele­vised, told The Post in an email.

“Any in­di­ca­tion that women are not dis­pos­able is a good sign,” Gray said. “It just might take the net­works some time to catch up.”

But not ev­ery­one seems to have got­ten the mes­sage.

The most re­cent char­ac­ter death came in the eighth sea­son pre­miere of CBS po­lice pro­ce­dural Blue Bloods last month. The show re­vealed that Linda Rea­gan (Amy Carl­son) — a nurse and the wife of lead char­ac­ter Det. Danny Rea­gan (Don­nie Wahlberg) and mother to their two sons — had died while air­lift­ing pa­tients in a he­li­copter when it crashed. In other words, last sea­son she was alive. This sea­son, she’s dead and the show acted as if ev­ery­one al­ready knew that. The death was so shock­ing that some fans won­dered if they had missed an episode.

That was CBS’ sec­ond off-screen TV wife death this year. When its Kevin James sit­com Kevin Can Wait re­turned for its sec­ond sea­son last month, fans learned that Donna (Erinn Hayes), his wife and mother to their three chil­dren, had died. View­ers weren’t even told how she died.

Fi­nally, Show­time’s crime drama Ray Donovan also killed off its male pro­tag­o­nist’s wife and mother to their three chil­dren be­tween sea­sons. Ray’s wife, Abby (played by Paula Mal­com­son), was di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer ear­lier in the show’s run. The new sea­son pre­miered in Au­gust to re­veal that she was dead — but the cause of her death re­mained a mys­tery. Last Sun­day, the show fi­nally re­vealed that she took her own life after not be­ing cho­sen as a sub­ject of an ex­per­i­men­tal can­cer treat­ment.

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