The wives of male characters on television shows are having a rough year.
Recently, shows have killed off prominent female characters to power plots revolving around the show’s leading men.
- In “Blue Bloods,” 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.
- When“Kevin Can Wait” returned for its second season last week, fans learned that Donna (Erinn Hayes), his wife and mother to their three children, had died. Viewers weren’t even told how she died.
- 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.
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.
According to Richard Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, 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 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.
“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.”
- In the long-running 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.
This decade 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.
- 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 the following shows:
- “Diff’rent Strokes”
- “My Two Dads”
- “Who’s the Boss?”
- “Full House”
TV has become a place where women play the complicated lead themselves. 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.