The Resurrection Will Not Be Televised: 15 Ways to Bring TV Characters Back From the Dead

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Some options for Shonda Rhimes, should she want to bring back Patrick Dempsey's 'Dr. McDreamy' character in 'Grey's Anatomy.' REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

If you want to make beloved fictional characters even more popular, just kill them off. Fans will demand their return, whether by hook or by crook or, in the case of Sherlock Holmes, by book. In his 1893 short story “The Final Problem,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first tried to rub out the famous detective by having him plummet from a cliff during a struggle with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty.Three years later, Doyle wrote of Holmes: "I have had such an overdose of him that I feel towards him as I do towards pâté de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day."

But as writer Christopher Morley noted, “Perhaps no fiction character ever created has become so charmingly real to his readers." When outraged fans demanded a resurrection, Doyle wrote the 1901 prequel The Hound of the Baskervilles. He finally relented to the public outcry in The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1904).

More than a century later Shonda Rhimes is pulling a Sherlock of her own. After the creator of the popular ABC soap Grey’s Anatomy killed off Patrick Dempsey’s Dr. Derek Shepherd in a car accident (after 11 seasons), fans of “Dr. McDreamy” organized an online protest.

“You've destroyed us. COMPLETELY!” complained one Courtney Williams of Snellville, Georgia, in a petition signed by more than 70,000 viewers. “Why Shonda, Why?”

Williams didn’t stop there: “It's like you've killed the President of Grey's Anatomy! The Fans are ready to serve you papers and charge you with the Patriot Act! You HAVE TO BRING DEREK BACK! NOW! IMMEDIATELY! What is Meredith going to do?! What is Zola and baby Bailey going to do!?!?!?!?!?!!?!? Did you NOT think about the kids?!”

But if Rhimes is actually thinking about the kids and needs a reason for bringing Dr. McDreamy back from the underworld, she has a lot of options. Here are some of the tropes TV writers have used to recycle deceased characters:

1. Time Machine

The old deus ex machina. Works only on shows that don’t pride themselves on realism. Take the 2012-2013 season of the BBC’s Doctor Who, in which the character Clara Oswald dies over and over in a variety of epochs. The doctor uses his time machine TARDIS to rescue her. Stewie Griffin on Fox’s animated Family Guy brings back his loyal dog Brian Griffin with a time machine on a 2013 episode. That one got tricky: Stewie had already destroyed the gizmo and couldn’t rebuild it. In a later episode, he spies himself at a mall, steals the machine and prevents the fatality. The CW’s The Vampire Diaries brought in two time machine subcategories: a dimension called The Other Side, in which dead supernatural beings live on in limbo, and an alternative time line. The Other Side is destroyed in the 2014 season finale, but—oops!—there’s another Other Side that’s stuck in the year 1990. Character Bonnie Bennett is brought back from the other Other Side.

2. Unexplained

TV writers can always take Comedy Central’s South Park route and ignore a character’s resurrection. Kenny has died at least 80 times so far, not including the nine ways he dies in the opening credit sequence. His resurrections are usually unexplained, with two exceptions. In the 2002 episode “Ladder to Heaven,” Cartman is possessed by Kenny’s dead body after drinking his remains (he thinks he’s sipping cocoa). In the 2010 episodes “Mysterion Rises” and “Coon vs. Coon and Friends,” Kenny reveals to his pals that he’s immortal and can’t die. Turns out his parents joined a Cthulhu cult to get free beer.

3. It Wasn’t Me or The Shaggy Defense

Subcategories include It Was My Twin, It Was My Clone and The Other Guy Was Just an Impersonator. Though most often seen on soap operas, teen network the CW has lately been using twins to explain characters’ deaths: Jane the Virgin recently used a twins excuse to bring back a character impaled with an ice pick. Over on ABC Family, the death of Alison and her re-emergence as A in Pretty Little Liars has some twin shenanigans that seem to get more convoluted every episode.

Related: In the second episode of the ninth season of The Simpsons, "The Principal and the Pauper,” Principal Skinner isn’t brought back from the dead, but another Principal Skinner is brought back to Springfield from oblivion. Turns out the Principal Skinner audiences came to know on the show was really an impersonator named Armin Tamzarian. He had fought in the Vietnam War alongside the real Skinner and assumed his identity after the real Skinner’s mother confused the two when Tamzarian came to tell her Skinner was dead. After learning the truth, the residents of Springfield decide they don’t like the real Skinner and pack him off on a train.

4. Zombies

Fans have started a petition similar to McDreamy’s to bring back Emily Kinney’s character Beth Greene on AMC’s The Walking Dead. Should be an easy fix: Zombies have the resurrection plot line built in.

5. Vampires

Most of the characters on HBO’s True Blood died and came back to life as vampires, either in flashbacks or in the ongoing plot of the seven seasons that aired from 2008 to 2014.

6. Mouth-to-Mouth

Buffy of the WB’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer was killed numerous times. In the 1997 season one finale, she was bitten by super-evil vampire the Master, fell into a shallow pool and drowned. Somewhat traditionally, she was revived through mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The second time was decidedly more paranormal.…

7. Witchcraft

Buffy’s second death was reversed by a spell cast by her friend Willow in the 2001 sixth season premiere. Subcategories of Witchcraft resurrections include Wizards (a la Beric Dondarrion emerging from the dead with the help of the Lord of Light in HBO’s Game of Thrones) and voodoo (Marie Laveau’s bargain for immortality in FX’s American Horror Story: Coven).

8. Never Found the Body

A trick frequently employed by Pretty Little Liars. Don’t believe that a teenage girl is dead until you see her corpse and test the pulse yourself. Related: The Never Got in Plane/Car/Boat, like Victoria Grayson, presumed dead after a plane crash on the 2012 second season premiere of ABC’s Revenge. Had she actually been onboard, it would have been a much shorter series.

9. Trapped Inside Another Body

When viewers are introduced to Clara on Doctor Who, she’s trapped inside the body of a Dalek, one of the Doctor’s longtime robot-alien enemies. Related: River Song, another character on the show’s later Matt Smith–starring episodes, is plugged into a server post-mortem and comes back as a sort telekinetic hologram in later seasons. The doctor’s whole schtick is resurrection (it’s a useful device for a show that’s been on the air for 52 years), but it’s always a treat to see other characters get the Homeric nod.

10. Government Conspiracy

Government cover-ups are frequently employed by ABC’s Scandal. Olivia Pope thought her mother was dead, but she was really just trapped in an underground prison (as revealed in 2013’s third season). More recently, Pope’s dad suffered a similar plight.

11. Not Quite Dead

Also used by Scandal. Pope’s on-again-off-again boyfriend Jake is stabbed repeatedly, yet doesn’t die. This tends to happen only with really good guys or really bad guys. Subcategory: Faking One’s Own Death, like Holmes in BBC’s Sherlock. An elementary ruse, my dear Watson.

12. First Episode Resurrection

A superhero trope used in NBC’s Heroes. In the 2006 pilot, high school cheerleader Claire is videotaped attempting suicide and then returning to the land of the living through rapid cell regeneration. Jesus was crucified in the prequel to A.D., The Bible Continues, but mounted a huge comeback in the first episode of the new show. It took three days.

13. Touched by God or True Love’s Kiss

On ABC’s Once Upon a Time, dead characters can be renewed by “true love’s kiss.” Exhibit A, and probably the best example ever, from the 2011 pilot: Snow White and Prince Charming.

14. Smoke Monster

Though John Locke appears to have been roused from the dead in the wildly confusing late-2007 episodes of ABC’s Lost, a smoke monster is actually impersonating him.

15. Entire Show Is a Resurrection, a Dream, an Epic Con or a Total Waste of Our Time

What the last episode of Lost implies. Ditto, the ninth season of the original Dallas in 1985-1986.

 

Correction: This article originally stated the ninth season of Dallas was in 1991. It actually aired from 1985-1986. It also incorrectly identified the Master, a villain from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.