Critic’s Notebook: A high TV body count at the end of this season

Death by gunfire and just plain death were quite popular this year as a ploy to keep viewers. Too bad it’s all so routine and calculated.

By definition, finale season is tough on a viewer’s nerves.

Like a college lover heading home at the end of spring semester, your favorite show wants to make sure you don’t forget the passion and the pain, that although you may make new friends over the summer, you won’t get carried away, won’t find a replacement show to consume you. Hence, the season finale shocker, which comes in four basic packages: cliffhanger, hail of bullets, consummation of forbidden/thwarted/deferred love or a combination of all three.

Either anticipating the assassination of  Osama bin Laden earlier this month or remembering how great last year’s “Grey’s Anatomy” gunman-in-Seattle-Grace finale turned out, hail of bullets was a big favorite this year.

The lovable Jeffersonian intern Mr. Vincent Nigel-Murray (Ryan Cartwright) took one meant for Agent Booth (David Doreanaz) on the penultimate episode of “Bones.” Half of Harlan County went down on “Justified” including the wondrous Mags Bennett ( Margo Martindale), though she chose poison after the gun smoke cleared. On “Castle,” not only did Capt. Montgomery (Ruban Santiago-Hudson) commit suicide by bad guy, but Beckett (Stana Katic) also got shot (though surely not fatally) while speaking at his funeral. And “The Mentalist’s” Patrick Jane ( Simon Baker) appears to have finally killed his nemesis, Red John (deliciously played by (Bradley Whitford).

Non-bullet-related deaths were also quite popular — Sue’s sister Jean (Robin Trocki) died on the penultimate episode of “Glee” prompting a sobfest funeral, and “Fringe’s” Peter Bishop ( Joshua Jackson) saved two worlds and apparently edited himself out of existence in the finale’s final moments.

Peter will no doubt be back, but the other characters above, and the actors who play them, are not so lucky. People die all the time in many of these shows, but usually they are people hired to die (or who turn out to be the killer), which is why finales so often have to sacrifice one of their own to up the stakes.

And although there is an undeniable thrill in seeing how far into the core group of characters the writers room will go to create tension, it’s upsetting to view the final body count and contemplate the frailty of, if not human life, then the basic contract the viewer has with a show (not to mention the actors’ actual contracts.)

Certainly, a death can be a powerful message — who doesn’t remember Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff) coming into the operating theater without a surgical mask to tell everyone that Lt. Col. Henry Blake’s plane had been shot down over the Sea of Japan and that there were no survivors. (I am tearing up even as I write the words.) And what writer wouldn’t want to emulate the “Who shot J.R.?” cliffhanger that really did keep everyone talking for months?

Increasingly, these finale stunners seem rote and calculated — find a character beloved enough to pull the viewers’ heartstrings but still replaceable — which means that the deaths will be forgotten by the fall premieres and that some fine character actor is out of work again.

It’s a bloody business, finale season. Of course, it could be worse; next year, the shows could all go musical.

By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic