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When bad things happen to good characters

During the week before Christmas in 1974, Chuck Cunningham entered the home of his parents in Milwaukee, Wis., and bounded up the stairs.

He was never seen again.

Richie's big brother on "Happy Days" thus became the first victim of "Chuck Cunningham Syndrome," an insidious disorder that through the magic of television allows characters to simply vanish — from our favorite shows, and from the memories of the loved ones left behind.

Would that Chuck had taken Potsie and Ralph Malph with him ... but no such luck.

Characters disappearing from shows used to be a wink-wink agreement between the television set and those who watched it. One day, the Bradys had a dog; the next it was gone.

One year, the youngest son drummer for The Partridge Family had brown hair; the next day, he was a blonde. And shorter.

Then on March 18, 1975, Col. Henry Blake got into a helicopter to head home to Lorraine in Bloomington, Ind. — only to have his plane, as we all know, "shot down over the sea of Japan. ... It spun in. ... There were no survivors."

The decision to actually kill a character on "M*A*S*H" was a turning point in primetime television viewing. Daytime dramas, of course, had killed (and brought back) characters for years. But Henry Blake was someone whom millions had allowed into their homes ... not through the addiction to soap operas, but by choice.

We, the audience, weren't in on the deal.

These days, of course, characters die all the time on TV. On "Charmed," a pleasant fantasy about sister witches, all the major characters died at one time or another during the eight seasons the series ran on TNT. Middle sister Piper once even shrugged "Am I dead again?" upon seeing her still-fresh corpse at the bottom of the stairs. But, Piper came back to life before the hour was out.

Heck, the dead don't always go away. The father of the Fisher family of morticians on "Six Feet Under" hung around as a ghost for years to comment on the goings-on. Long-dead regulars have returned during this, the final, season of "Lost."

We're in the silly phase of the television year, as shows that are returning (and some that aren't) steam toward the wrapping of their seasons wondering whether a death (or a cliffhanging might-be, could-be, can't-be demise) will boost ratings for next year.

George got hit by a bus in last season's finale of "Grey's Anatomy." Edie died early this season on "Desperate Housewives." Regulars get bumped off from "CSI" and "Law & Order" franchises with regularity (most recently, Eric Bogosian's Capt. Ross on L&O: Criminal Intent.")

By the way, you "Private Practice" fans (both of you), get the hankies ready ... and soon.

Some of this is about actors tiring of their characters (S. Epatha McPherson is leaving "Law & Order" ... GIVE HER CANCER! ... Kai Penn of "House" takes a job in the Obama administration ... HAVE DR. KUTNER COMMIT SUICIDE!) Other times, a character death is in service to the plotline.

And that brings us to Agent Renee Walker, who bit the bullet ... so to speak ... during Monday's episode of "24."

Renee was that rarity among government agents in supporting roles on TV series. She was interesting. Completely whacked-out by the events of the previous season, she hurtled through this year from one calamity to the next — even accidentally stabbing Jack Bauer in the gut. (Don't worry, it's Jack Bauer ... he's been shot in the chest and been feet away from a suicide bomber since then. He's fine.)

Renee died by sniper bullet after consummating her passion-filled but emotionally unstable relationship with Jack. In true "24" tradition, she was given the silent-clock treatment and Jack — who's now lost three lovers to death and one to an irreversible coma — has been given even more reason to end this final season of the show with guns a'blazing.

He won't die, of course, for two reasons. One, there's a movie version in the planning stages. And, two ... HE'S ... JACK ... BAUER.

Maybe we're immune to this by now. Maybe in an era where we rabidly speed-dial network phone banks to eliminate celebrity dancers and aspiring singers, we just can't get emotionally involved when an Edith Bunker or Dr. Mark Greene goes to that great syndication vault in the sky.

Renee's death was lamentable, though, even among the annual corpse-count that is "24." (Speaking of which, will they ever find the garrotted parole officer stuffed in the ventilation system at CTU headquarters?) Far less interesting characters survive season after season on TV.

You'd think they would have at least allowed her to walk up a set of nondescript stairs on a mission to find Chuck Cunningham.

Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin writes about television for Tempo. He can be reached at rgalvin@mailtribune.com