May 25, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

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 e-mailed 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.

That’s why Martin Sheen won’t get permanently vetoed anytime soon. True, ABC’s The Drew Carey Show successfully hyped a February episode in which Drew briefly kicks the bucket. ”People thought we were going to kill him,” laughs Carey producer Bruce Helford. ”But nobody dies on a comedy.” And despite Anthony Edwards’ publicly declared desire to leave ER (and his character’s brain tumor), NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker vows, ”Everyone returns next season for the whole season.”

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