Sad news for fans of the SyFy Channel's series "Sanctuary": the show is officially not returning for a fifth season. The fourth season finale aired this past December, but the announcement about the show's future wasn't made until late May.
How did it come to this? After starting life as a popular web series, the show transitioned to TV with a freshman season that was both promising and satisfying. But not long into the second season, the show began a slow decline that continued all the way into the final season.
There are lots of problems a fan could point to: the downright goofiness of Will's dance (a major plot point) in Season 2, the overwhelming scale of the caldera threat that was unconvincingly solved in short order, or the increasing reliance on time travel to retcon problematic plot elements.
But there's a simple answer that may speak to the root of the show's decline over time. In all the time it was on the air, the show never properly handled the death of major characters, and even botched some of the minor ones.
It was a mistake to kill off Ashley, not only because she was popular with fans and provided both sexual and dramatic tension to the plots, but because her death was somewhat ambiguous. Fans didn't feel the need to mourn her passing, because they were sure the writers would find some plot contrivance to bring her back, ensuring the death had only minimal emotional resonance. By the time fans realized she was gone for good, the time to mourn her had passed.
It was a mistake to kill off (some of) "The Five" so quickly. While Druitt and Tesla managed to stick around on a semi-regular basis, viewers had just enough time to get intrigued with James Watson and Nigel's relative Clara Griffin, only to have them killed off before fans had a chance to explore them. And this sort of thing happened to many other single episode characters, making it impossible to bring even some of the most interesting ones back.
And as for Druitt...it's hard to characterize his death, since he's only presumed dead after the events of "Into the Black." Same goes for Helen's father, who went AWOL for a season or two, then reconnected with Helen, only to be "killed" during the explosion in Praxis. Except, of course, his body wasn't recovered...Helen only found his walking stick.
It's hard for viewers to feel that the stakes are high for TV characters when they don't get a proper death. Keeping characters on the back shelf to be whipped out at a later date doesn't work as a long-term strategy, even for a show with supernatural elements.
Maybe "Sanctuary" should have taken a page from the "Vampire Diaries" playbook. In a recent interview, producer Julie Plec confided that a major villain was set to die in the Season 3 finale, but the writers changed their mind.
"Sometimes [as a writer] you kill a character because you don't know what else you can do with them, and sometimes you kill them because their death will so powerfully impact your other characters," Plec said. "But if you're killing a character who is doing a great job with tons and tons of story left in him, you're making a mistake."
For supernatural and mundane shows alike, that kind of respect for characters is always a good rule of thumb. Maybe if "Sanctuary" had properly killed off characters while having the sense to retain the few characters that still had more story left in them, the show might have gotten a shot at Season 5.