Hart Hanson shot my puppy.
I'm referring to the creator of Fox's Bones, and that is precisely how I and many Bones fans are feeling after last week's season finale. (If you have not seen it and don't want it spoiled, please stop reading.)
It's been called the "Zack-lash" -- the cannibalistic serial killer on Bones was revealed, but it wasn't his identity that sent fans of the show into the seven stages of grief last week over a character who didn't even die. It was the identity of the one helping him, his apprentice -- Zack Addy, played by Eric Millegan. It was, to say the least, a shocker of a season finale.
But it isn't only the character of Zack being written off the show that has us collectively following the Kubler-Ross model. It was the fact that it was shoddily written. It was a hasty, cheap conclusion, and probably caused Eric Millegan to be the biggest casualty of the writers' strike (and earned him what must be the most bittersweet week of press ever).
However, I know why it was done, and I know where the writers were coming from when this decision was made. We would all like to think that our favorite shows can remain on an entertainingly even keel throughout its run, retaining all of our favorite characters and keeping them happy and healthy. But Bones, as much of a drama as is it a comedy, is not willing to maintain a status quo. And that's great. Many shows have taken drastic measures to shake things up, and in the broader context of storytelling, it would only make sense to do so in order to keep an audience interested. Why would we watch a show in which nothing ever happened? It's the reason we're watching, and the reason we should all keep watching.
It doesn't mean that all the fans will be happy all the time, but good storytelling is what attracts people and affects them. Storytelling gives us characters who possess something to which we can relate, even if it's something very small or vague. But we are hearing about them because something out of the ordinary happened -- why else would we be paying attention? These events are a catalyst for the whole series of things that will follow and eventually, hopefully, be resolved by the end. In other words, if a character is taken away, there is probably a good reason.
Take Mrs. Landingham from The West Wing. At the end of the second season, she was killed in a drunk driving accident. It was the final straw for President Bartlet (Martin Sheen), who had been taking a lot of hits over keeping his MS a secret, a political situation in Haiti and a case against Big Tobacco. He was losing battles, and then he lost the pillar that had always held him up -- Mrs. Landingham, his secretary (Kathryn Joosten). Bartlet was ready to skip running for re-election, until he had an imaginary conversation with Mrs. Landingham, who he knew would tell him "God doesn't make cars crash and you know it. Stop using me as an excuse." He runs again and wins (she shows up in flashbacks).
Talk about grieving for a fictional character -- a California State Assemblyman (that would be the state government) eulogized Mrs. Landingham upon closing the session of the day following the season finale.
And let's please not forget about Edgar Stiles on 24 in season five. The sentiments attached to Edgar and the man who played him, Louis Lombardi, probably echoed a lot of what Bones fans felt for Zack Addy and Eric Millegan. This article on TV Fodder makes post-finale interviews with Millegan feel like deja vu. The major difference between losing Edgar and losing Zack, however, is that on 24, anyone could be killed at any time. (Including Bones cast member TJ Thyne, who played "24 Casualty #7680976898980 aka Jason Girard.) Losing Edgar really meant that the 24 crew were going to be ruthless in showing us how much of a threat the terrorists were and how high the stakes were. If Edgar, one of the most lovable and faithfully present characters on the show, could die, then we were all in some serious danger. (Another major difference is that Edgar actually, um, died.)
But it's not as if we've never seen characters leave the show as a result of turning to the dark side before. Taking 24 as an example again, did anyone think Nina Myers (Sarah Clarke) would turn out to be the mole inside CTU during the first season? Her character returned semi-regularly for two more seasons. But this was a well-thought-out reveal, as was the one in season five when we found out the nimrod moron President Logan (Gregory Itzin) was, in fact, not a nimrod moron, but responsible for pretty much every horror that happened that season. Season five turned out to be 24's best season because of the death of Edgar and the brilliant Logan plot twist. Edgar left us on a sad, tragic note and we got to hate Logan for all new reasons. (And, it should be said, it made season six seem incredibly weak.)
What made the Bones season finale so traumatizing, however, is how the departure of a beloved regular character was executed. The writers and the actor had created a character for whom we cared so much that doing something to put him in such deep peril would be absolutely devastating. "We love you, and that's why it will be heartbreaking to see you go." (Somewhere, Eric Millegan is thinking, "Gee, thanks.") Zack Addy has been the "little brother" of the show, the one who changed as a person the most, who grew up, nurtured friendships, earned his place in his career and spouted off technical jargon chock full of four-dollar words with the greatest of ease while figures of speech went completely over his head. He was so loved that when he confessed to being the apprentice to a serial killer who ate people and justified murder with simple logic, we weren't disgusted, or mad at Zack, or ready to write him off as a psycho - we mourned. So writing Zack off the show was understandable, especially in the context of a serial killer storyline -- that's just how awful this killer is and how unsafe everyone else is. But revealing -- out of the blue -- that Zack has been in cohoots with the killer and a killer himself, then shipping him off to a psych ward? That's like sneaking up on me behind my back with a weed-whacker and then handing me a band-aid after I've been ripped apart. "Hey, at least he's still alive, right?"
Hart Hanson did not underestimate the reaction this twist would get. (In fact, while there had been plenty of speculation that Zack could have been the apprentice, I didn't really resign myself to it until I read an interview with Hanson for Entertainment Weekly the afternoon of the finale, in which he said he was "expecting a violent reaction." That was when I knew it was Zack, for sure.) But the writers completely underestimated their audience, and that's why this was such an inexcusable finale. (TV Guide's Matt Roush was pissed enough to bring it up three times last week.) In this age of Interwebs and DVDs and Tivos and whatnots, every single episode of most shows is readily available for viewing. And every single nuance of every single episode is open to discussion online by people who can examine scenes, facial expressions, dialogue, set decoration, everything as if it was the Zapruder film. As a result, the willing suspension of disbelief was given a whole new meaning. Fans, including me, have gone back over the past three seasons and come up with mountains of evidence for why this turn of events made no sense.
That's why it feels like Hanson shot my puppy -- there was nothing leading up to it, and it was completely unfair. (I don't actually have a puppy. I wish I did, but now I'm afraid Hart Hanson will shoot it. And then laugh.)
It may sound a bit irrational to be this worked up over a TV show and fictional characters, and I will agree to a point. But as someone who aspires to make a career out of storytelling as a writer and an actor -- and as someone who once called Bones the "perfect show" -- I think Hanson and the show's writers owe us an explanation, and that includes justice for Zack Addy. You cannot throw this kind of inexplicable crap in our face and expect us to buy it. Fine, he was Gormagon's apprentice -- why? And if you think the piddly logic argument is going to tide us over, why was it so easy for Bones (Emily Deschanel) to explain away? Zack was buying it enough to kill someone (something I am really not convinced he did), but then all of a sudden realized his reasoning was flawed? In 2-3 sentences? Yeah -- that's why the "Oops! I'm a killer" thing didn't work for a lot of us.
And this is supposed to justify Eric Millegan no longer being on TV and Joey "Whoa!" Lawrence hosting a show called "Master of Dance"? "Master of Dance"?
Despite my sheer nonacceptance of this creative decision on Bones, I know why it was made and I respect the producers who have control over their own show. And true Bones fans will not stop watching the show, because we wouldn't have been watching if we didn't love the show in the first place. We also wouldn't be so mad if we hadn't been able to set our standards so high over the past three seasons. I still love Bones and everything Hanson has made it out to be. But this story has got to be resolved. You can be sure we will all be watching and parsing every detail!
I mentioned I'm an aspiring writer (TV, film and sketch comedy) and since apparently I am that nerdy, I blurted out a thesis paper's worth of theories on why Zack joined a cult and how this story can be explained on my own blog, Flummoxology. And if you want evidence that Zack could not have possibly killed someone, by jove, I've got it in there. Believe me -- I do not have delusions of grandeur when it comes to my storytelling abilities, but I think I make a pretty compelling case. (My one commenter thinks so.) Sometimes a girl's just gotta get it out of her system.