West Wing: Richard Cartwright
May 25, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

by Scott Brown and Lynette Rice

On May 10, California state assemblyman Kevin Shelley delivered a tribute to ”a great American” whose untimely death the night before had shaken the country to its foundations. The Democrat spoke, of course, of the late, beloved Dolores Landingham, personal secretary to President Josiah Bartlet on NBC’s ”The West Wing.”

Sure, she was fictional. And Kathryn Joosten’s character never had many lines. But that’s cold comfort for ”Wing” nuts, hundreds of whom have emailed Joosten to lament Mrs. L’s fatal collision (off screen!) with a drunk driver.

Call it overkill, but this has been an especially lethal primetime season. Consider the casualties on HBO’s ”The Sopranos.” And a moment of silence, please, for prosecutor Richard Bay (Jason Kravits), whose closing argument was followed by a hail of bullets this month on ABC’s ”The Practice.” And by the time many of you read this, the fat lady will have sung for another Soprano (rumored to be a regular), while Shannen Doherty’s Prue may leave the WB’s ”Charmed” for more than a spell. (It’s been announced the actress is splitting after this season.)

Of course, the Reaper has always hovered over TV land. Folks are still reeling from the surprise loss of ”M*A*S*H”’s McLean Stevenson in 1975. Peter Horton’s 1991 demise blindsided ”thirtysomething”’s faithful. And though Patrick Duffy’s Bobby Ewing didn’t stay dead, his 1985 exit from ”Dallas” caused plenty of uproar.

And yet, this season’s massacre may be a breed apart. Sure, characters have been written out for the usual reasons: Nancy Marchand’s real life passing necessitated a CGI assisted departure from ”The Sopranos,” and Perry King’s ”Titans” patriarch expired almost as fast as, well, ”Titans,” after the NBC show’s producers decided to sub in Jack Wagner.

But with ”The Sopranos” whacking mainstays (Vincent Pastore’s Big Pussy) and repeat visitors (remember constipated capo Gigi Cestone?) with equal impunity, TV producers seem to be feeling especially bloody minded. Series regulars on the WB’s ”Roswell” (Colin Hanks), NBC’s ”Third Watch” (Bobby Cannavale), and ABC’s ”Once and Again” (David Clennon) all bit the dust this year. Jeez, ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer” even killed Buffy’s mom (Kristine Sutherland). What’s the method to this madness? ”Kristine was a great presence, and a part of the show that would be missed,” explains ”Buffy” creator Joss Whedon. ”At the same time, it wouldn’t really affect the structure of the show.” There’s a pattern emerging from all this character assassination. Victims tend to be second fiddles and recurring players teetering on the brink of regularity — familiar enough to register an emotional payoff, but not so essential as to create logistical problems.

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