The disposable wives of television

Donna, wife of Kevin in the Kevin Can Wait sitcom and played by Erinn Hayes (above left, with co-star Kevin James), was revealed to have died in the second season.
Donna, wife of Kevin in the Kevin Can Wait sitcom and played by Erinn Hayes (left, with co-star Kevin James), was revealed to have died in the second season.PHOTO: CBS

WASHINGTON • 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 mums on television," Gray told The Washington Post in a telephone interview.

It is a practice stretching back decades. In Bonanza, which aired from 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 (1963 to 1972), Tom Corbett (Bill Bixby) is a magazine publisher and widower raising a young son. And on Family Affair (1966 to 1971), Bill Davis (Brian Keith) is a bachelor suddenly faced with raising his three orphaned nieces and nephews.

The trope 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 Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Centre for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

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 is the women who will be written off the show - and if the women are mothers and spouses, then there is 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," said Thompson. "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.

"If the title of a show is Ray Donovan, you can't kill off Ray," he said.

The last decade brought shows featuring female drug dealers, lawyers, detectives and doctors - leading roles traditionally played by men. Most of the characters were not simply defined by motherhood or their romantic relationships with men.

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.

"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 got the message.

The most recent character death came in the eighth season premiere of CBS police procedural Blue Bloods last Friday. The show revealed that Linda Reagan (Amy Carlson) - a nurse and the wife of lead character Detective 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 is 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 week, fans learnt that Donna (Erinn Hayes), his wife and mother to their three children, had died. Viewers were not 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 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.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 09, 2017, with the headline 'The disposable wives of television'. Print Edition | Subscribe