Tragedy Minus Time: A tale of the passing of two pop culture iconsWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
On Monday, March 12, two long-running television series aired new episodes. Each show dealt with the sudden and unexpected passing of a long-standing and memorable cast member. Each show used said individual’s death as a part of ongoing storylines and to add resonance and interest to what will happen for weeks to come.
One was TNT’s reboot of the classic prime time soap “Dallas,” which said goodbye to both iconic villain J.R. Ewing and the equally iconic Larry Hagman. One was WWE’s weekly telecast “Monday Night Raw,” which honored the passing of William Moody, best known to fans the world over as Paul Bearer — longtime manager of WWE icon The Undertaker.
“Dallas”‘s farewell was almost universally well-received and seen as an honorable send-off to a character and the man who played him. WWE’s show has engendered quite a bit of controversy from viewers who found it exploitive and in poor taste. What was the difference between the two that has led to such wildly contrasting receptions?
After Larry Hagman’s death in November, it was not only expected that the new “Dallas” would address his passing in storyline, but it seemed to be a necessity. Hagman had died midway into the production of the show’s second season, and many of his character’s plot lines would have been left unresolved — to say nothing of how much J.R.’s departure would impact the other characters on a show where he was, in many ways, the center of their universe.
The show that was crafted ended up finding ways to pay tribute to the man and his character, but also tried to convince viewers that life and the show would go on. Several moving moments and speeches underlined the gravity of the moment, but newly dangled plot threads surrounding the question of who shot J.R. this time — and why — attempted to get new and existing viewers to stay with the show.
Paul Bearer, on the other hand, was not really a viable character on WWE television any longer. Sure, he’d made sporadic appearances for the company over the past ten years, but each run was brief at best, and it had practically become a running gag how many times his character would be “killed off” on television.
So when Moody passed away on March 5, while it was expected that WWE would acknowledge his passing and pay tribute, few anticipated his death would have an impact on current storylines. They were proven wrong when, as the Undertaker was paying tribute to his former manager, Taker’s rival CM Punk came out to express condolences…for his upcoming pay-per-view loss, adding that at least would be that Bearer wouldn’t see Taker’s defeat.
Many fans expressed offense at these events, saying that it was disrespectful for WWE to turn a real-life death into an “angle” to hype a wrestling match. But this was hardly the first time in the history of the business where real-life events were used in such a seemingly tasteless manner. Nothing, not even death, has proven out of bounds. On balance, using former wrestler Eddie Guerrero’s passing by having Randy Orton proclaim that “Eddie’s in hell” was far more despicable than anything done by CM Punk.
Then we have the word of Moody’s fellow wrestlers and co-workers, many of whom took to Twitter to say they felt not only would Moody have approved, but would have loved the story. He adored the wrestling business, warts and all.
Like most everything surrounding someone’s loss, however, the debate really is about what those left behind think — not just Moody’s fans, but his family and close friends. And there is no doubt many were offended by the use of his passing to sell a few extra pay-per-view buys.
But then, what was “Dallas” doing but using Hagman’s memory to both pay homage and draw in viewers, for ratings and (by extension) financial gain? The main differences are all but superficial, with one major exception: Timing. “Dallas” fans had months to recover from the shock of Hagman’s death before the episode where J.R. met his demise. Moody had been gone less than a week when WWE decided to invoke his name.
Millions had mourned the loss of an actor, then much later had the chance to mourn (and by extension celebrate) the character he left behind. The memories WWE pounced on were still very fresh — and though I personally wasn’t terribly offended, I do not blame those who were for expressing their pain. The old saying goes that comedy is simply “tragedy plus time.” The same could be said for all entertainments, no matter the form.