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From 'Impeachment' to 'Hacks' to 'Heels,' TV Is Rethinking How to Show Suicide

As in the anthology's previous seasons, Impeachment: American Crime Story begins with death. But unlike The People v. O.J. Simpson or The Assassination of Gianni Versace, the catalyst for this story isn't murder-it's the more intimate act of suicide.From 'Impeachment' to 'Hacks' to 'Heels,' TV Is Rethinking How to Show Suicide

The limited series argues that the death of deputy White House counsel Vince Foster created a domino effect, leading directly to White House counsel executive assistant Linda Tripp ( Sarah Paulson) being transferred to the Pentagon-a job she deemed as something of a demotion. It's also where she eventually befriended Monica Lewinsky ( Beanie Feldstein).

While pivotal to the story, the scene of Foster's death isn't gruesome or particularly detailed. We see Foster, who had been stressed out over the Clintons' Whitewater real estate investment scandal, drive into the woods and take a gun from his glove box. After he paces intently, the camera pans up to an open sky and a shot is heard as birds scatter.

Both Impeachment executive producer Ryan Murphy, who directed this episode, and writer and executive producer Sarah Burgess declined through FX publicists to comment on the scene. Burgess did tell Collider that it was important to show the suicide onscreen, even obliquely: "For an event there's a lot of conspiracy theories about, and a lot of, I think, dishonesty about, it felt important to understand him as a human being and what he was," she said. "I felt it was important to depict that as opposed to allow something to happen entirely offstage, which is sort of where these sort of shadowy conspiracy theories arise, and to understand what Linda experienced that day to some degree."

Even so, and perhaps predictably, the sequence disturbed some viewers. That's because when it comes to showing suicide onscreen, the question isn't why you do it so much as whether you do it in the first place.

This debate is particularly raw right now, in an age where artists have become increasingly sensitive about and aware of their capacity to unearth, or encourage, pain or trauma. In the post-#MeToo era, TV sets regularly employ intimacy coordinators to help actors and crew feel safe while accurately depicting sex. TV producers habitually consult with nonprofits like GLAAD or RAINN when their projects portray LGBTQ+ story lines or sexual assault.

For suicide scenes, though, there is no generally agreed-upon protocol. "Suicide is a complicated issue because many people are left with the aftermath," says actor and writer Mike O'Malley. He's also showrunner of the new Starz wrestling drama Heels, which includes a suicide scene in its third episode. In a flashback scene, Tom Spade ( David James Elliott) shoots himself, seemingly with little premeditation. He dies on the family home's porch, falling over the railing to the ground where his younger son Ace ( Alexander Ludwig) soon finds him.

"He went over the railing as a metaphor for going over the top rope," O'Malley says. "If you go over the top rope in wrestling, you're out; you lose."

O'Malley, who also acted in the Will Smith sports film Concussion, is aware of the physical and mental pain that particularly plagues athletes who participate in full-contact sports. After our interview, he sends me news that former WCW star Daffney Unger had died after she posted a disturbing video on social media.

His goal with the Heels scene, O'Malley says, was to make it quick, and to end with the reaction on Ludwig's character's face-instead of the image of him running to the body.

"The aftermath of a suicide gets passed on," he says, adding that "we're human beings; we understand that this person that we love was in so much pain. But there's also anger that I, the person who loved that person, did not have enough influence on them to provide them with solace to alleviate their sense of desperation."

Suicide, of course, has always been a plot device, at least since the days of Antigone and Oedipus Rex. Modern TV dramas have used it as an inciting incident for a why'd-she-do-it ( Desperate Housewives), to complicate matters for a lead ( The Sopranos), or to make leads question their own preconceptions ( House). The currently Emmy-nominated HBO Max series Hacks, a dramedy, even found a way to show a reaction to a suicide that's more wry than tragic.