Are you surprised at the news that Katherine Heigl will probably leave Grey’s Anatomy? (Along with T.R. Knight, whose departure has been rumoured for a while now?) Or are you just surprised that it took this long for a co-star to say she was leaving? We don’t even have to wonder why she’s probably going to leave; she’s already made it clear that she doesn’t like her part and would rather go do 28 Dresses, 29 Dresses, and a possible Dresses franchise. (When she made her famous statement that she was withdrawing from Emmy consideration due to bad writing, that was generally seen as the sort of thing an actor says when she is trying to get out of her contract.)
So the only question remaining is: if she leaves, how will they write off her character? They’ve left several options open already. Since it’s a workplace show, they have the option of simply transferring her character to another job. But they also have the option of killing her off, and they’ve made sure to keep that option open, setting up the possibility that she might have a brain tumor, but also that she might not. So they can write her off any way that suits them: a quick transfer, a slow ratings-grabbing death, a sudden death from a tumor that wasn’t properly diagnosed. How you write off a character depends on the character, but it depends even more on how long the actor sticks around, whether the parting is amicable or angry, and whether the show needs a big write-off to boost its ratings.
Traditionally, writing off a character was done hastily, because characters usually left the show (or were dropped) in the off-season; if they were fired or left during the season, they were usually not kept around for an additional episode so they could get a proper send-off. Everybody remembers that McLean Stevenson announced his departure from M*A*S*H with time to spare in the third season, which allowed the writers to come up with an episode about his character leaving. But much more typical was the other high-profile departure from that show after the third season: Wayne Rogers decided to leave after the season wrapped, and was gone before the fourth season had started filming. So Trapper John never actually appears in the episode that supposedly focuses on his departure and the arrival of his replacement. And at least M*A*S*H made a big deal out of the fact that Trapper was gone. Usually when someone left or was fired, their departure would be dealt with in one line of dialogue, and then the show would carry on as before. My favourite example: after Farrah Fawcett left Charlie’s Angels, the new season opened with one line of dialogue explaining that her character had left, another few lines to introduce her replacement, and then not only did the episode go on as before, but the new character acted like she’d been part of the team forever (because the script had obviously been written for the other character, and then had the new one written in without much alteration; that’s the way TV was done then). And a character was lucky if he or she even got that one line to mark his or her departure. It was quite common for a character to leave without anybody mentioning that he’d ever been there in the first place; Randall Carver was let go from Taxi and nobody ever acknowledged his character’s existence again.
But shows today have more inter-episode continuity than they used to (even the shows with so-called “stand-alone” episodes) and fans usually won’t accept a character disappearing without anybody explaining why. So the options are a) Kill him; b) Find a reason for him to go somewhere else.
Killing is the default option for many shows today, because shows like 24 and Lost depend so heavily on the idea that almost no character is safe, and they routinely kill characters played by actors who didn’t want to leave, just to surprise us. But when an actor decides to cut back his or her role on the show, that character might actually be allowed to survive for a while, just because so many people get killed on the show that killing the departing character wouldn’t have any impact. So when Kim Bauer was eased off 24, they did it by having her get into an ill-advised relationship and move away; not only is she not dead yet, but she’s coming back for another guest appearance this season. Which brings up another argument against killing off a character, which is that you lose the ability to bring the character back for guest shots. But with the fragmented storytelling and flashbacks of today’s TV, that’s not always a problem; you can kill someone and then have them reappear in flashback.
A method that’s sort of in-between is to have the characters act as if the departed character still exists, even though he rarely or never appears. Smallville has been doing that with the “presumed dead” Lex Luthor, whose evil schemes still figure in the plot even though Michael Rosenbaum wisely left the show last year.
The two biggest questions about the proper way to write out a character is, first, what makes for the best ratings stunt, and second, what is the best method for getting revenge on the actor who left? The “revenge” factor can actually work equally well with either method. The most famous revenge killing in television history is on the aforementioned M*A*S*H, where the writers killed off Dr. Henry Blake without telling McLean Stevenson (or anybody else before the scene was actually shot). It was their way of ensuring that he could never come back, even for guest appearances. And of course I’ve already talked about the infamous revenge killing of Valerie Harper’s chracter on The Hogan Family. (“Come on, Dad, it’s been six months since Mom died…” and she’s forgotten forever after one line.) The movie Tootsie summed up this particular practice when Dustin Hoffman’s character asks about the reason for killing off a character on a soap opera, and is told “he asked for a raise.” But the writers and producers can also get revenge by dumping the character in a humiliating way. When Jessica Biel posed for some naughty pictures and got in trouble with the producers of 7th Heaven, they kept her on her contract but reduced her screen time, gave her character some awful storylines and dropped her without a whole lot of dignity; this was widely seen at the time as a sort of punishment.
As for what’s the better stunt, I don’t know. I could see argments either way: killing off a popular character is more spectacular, but the news always leaks out in advance, destroying the surprise; and unless you give the character a long-drawn-out disease like on some soap operas, the death is too sudden to be the focus of the episode. Whereas if you have the character just decide to pack up and leave, that can be the excuse for a whole episode’s worth of hugs, goodbyes, recriminations and (if the producers need to save money) clips from stuff the character has done in the past.
In summary: If/when Katherine Heigl leaves Grey’s Anatomy, I am sure the writers will handle her character’s departure with all the good taste and good judgment they’ve shown in the rest of this season. Unfortunately.