When TV Stars Die

Three well-known writers have died over the past six weeks  All received big send-offs on the front page of the New York Times and respectful appreciations in The New Yorkerand other high-end publications.  But only one was rewarded on social media with an outpouring of grief — largely because this writer also hosted a TV show.

The first two would be the literary giant and novelist Philip Roth, and Tom Wolfe, the immensely influential non-fiction writer (also a novelist) — both of whom merely got the full-respect treatment. Contrast them with food writer Anthony Bourdain, who was widely mourned on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.  

To be sure, part of the grief over Bourdain is that he was roughly 25 years younger than Roth and Wolfe, and died by his own hand less than a week after the designer Kate Spade had also committed suicide.  Still, it was remarkable that the passing of these two literary lions was so overshadowed on social media by a food writer.



The reaction to Bourdain’s death was another reminder, as if we needed one, of the power of television to create the illusion that we actually know the people we see on the screen.  These folks come into our living rooms and bedrooms, sometimes when we are at our most vulnerable, and it feels as if they’re our friends.

I started musing on this phenomenon because I only knew Bourdain through his books and articles.  When I heard that he had died, I did feel sad, as I would hearing about any person’s death, but I didn’t feel the deep personal loss that so many others did.  What was I missing?  And then I realized, “Oh, he had a TV show.”

The social media outpouring on behalf of Bourdain reminded me of the even more profound grief following the suicide of Robin Williams and the passing of Leonard Nimoy, two other deaths that caught the public by surprise.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that TV celebrities are not our friends.  These are very one-sided relationships. They don’t post about us when we die.

There’s a psychological term for the way we think about celebrities: “parasocial relationships,” which are defined as relationships where one person extends emotional energy, interest, and time while the other person is completely unaware of the other’s existence.  

The benefit of a parasocial engagement is that you can’t be rejected by someone you admire from afar.  But here’s the problem with parasocial relationships and the mass media.  Because celebrity culture is so pervasive, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people with whom we have parasocial relationships.  We feel connected in some way to anyone who ever starred in a TV show we watched, and by the rules of chance dozens of them will die every year.  That means a lot of mourning for people we’ve never met.

Now it’s one thing when someone like Abe Vigoda dies at age 85.  You might think, “gee that’s too bad” — even though you might have thought he was already dead.  It’s the completely unexpected ones, like Bourdain, former “Glee” star Cory Monteith, or Robin Williams that hit us the hardest.

And yet, although that sense of loss is real and not imagined, I’d like to see a little more restraint on social media when there’s a celebrity death.  Sometimes Facebook becomes an echo chamber where each post about a dead celebrity magnifies on the feelings of other Facebookers, until they’ve just got to post something to unburden their social-media-heightened feelings.

Regrettably, it doesn’t take long on social media for everyone to be sharing the same warmed-over platitudes. One or two of my Facebook friends posted reminiscences about the times they met Anthony Bourdain, which I thought was great because it illuminated my understanding of him as a person.  But a lot of what people posted seemed self-indulgent and focused more on their own personal loss rather than on Bourdain himself.

Here then, is my general rule for social media posting after we lose a TV star.  It’s an inversion of the old adage that if you can’t think of something nice to say about someone, don’t say anything all: If you can ONLY say something nice about a person, don’t say anything at all.  Platitudes actually diminish the deceased by reducing them to abstractions.

Exert yourself to say something original or interesting.  Or maybe just don’t jump on the grief bandwagon in the first place.

1 comment about "When TV Stars Die".
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  1. Darrin Stephens from McMann & Tate, June 28, 2018 at 9:30 a.m.

    Howard Beale: Why me?
    Arthur Jensen: Because you're on television, dummy. 
    (from the movie "Network")

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