Soap gets in our eyes

SAD FAREWELL: Amanda Billing shed tears at the death of her Shortland Street character, Dr Sarah Potts, who has been a major part of the actor’s life for a decade.
SAD FAREWELL: Amanda Billing shed tears at the death of her Shortland Street character, Dr Sarah Potts, who has been a major part of the actor’s life for a decade.

Thousands of Kiwis have paid tribute to a heroic doctor who died after finding the cure for the disease that ultimately killed her.

Dr Sarah Potts died on Monday, hours after contracting a killer virus. She had time to discover the cure that would save the lives of others who were infected, but her own immune system was too weak for the antidote to work.

Her funeral is tomorrow.

Only, Dr Potts is not real.

She is a veteran character on hospital drama Shortland Street, killed off after 10 years on the soap opera. But the grief from the show's fans is very real. And so were the ratings.

"You can now fly free Sarah, you were loved by many," posted Tiffany, one of the thousands who expressed their sorrow on TVNZ's Dr Potts tribute page.

When viewers constantly see a character on television they begin to identify with them and share their emotional states, according to research by psychologists. So when a character dies it is difficult to separate fact from fiction, and the grief is genuine.

"We see that people are affected by character deaths, [because of] the extent to which they are a part of our lives," said Marc Wilson, associate professor of psychology at Victoria University.

Because they empathise with that character and the others who are presented as part of their lives."

Social media offers fans a communal place to grieve.

The tribute site set up by TVNZ following Dr Potts' death has had over 61,000 unique users in less than a week and the Shortland Street RIP post has reached 1.6 million people.

"Virtual memorials have sprung up and these offer people a way to maintain the relationship they have with the deceased. Memorials and tributes are also social signals to others indicating that you care about someone or something, and Facebook and other social media offer a very immediate way to manifest that," said Wilson.

The decision to kill off Potts was made towards the end of 2013, and actress Amanda Billing found out about five months ago. The difficult choice was made because viewer attachment to characters meant one plot door had to be forced shut to plausibly open another.

"We knew that no one would accept TK [Dr Samuels, played by Ben Mitchell] having a new love interest in the future if there was even the remotest possibility that Sarah may one day return," said Simon Bennett, Shortland Street producer.

Last week was Shortland Street's highest rating week of 2014 with an average of 614,000 viewers aged five and over.

The huge public response to Potts' death has confirmed to the show's producers they made the right choice to kill her.

"The death of a core cast character is only ever a mistake if it doesn't somehow resonate, or make an impact on the audience," said Bennett.

"This one quite clearly did. Sarah's death will create a ripple effect for other characters who surrounded her so helps to create a new generation of storylines."

Billing, who cried during Monday's episode, has been faced with her own sorrow as her role was terminated.

"I have been overwhelmed by the response to Sarah's death. I knew it would be tough for the audience, and keeping a lid on the storyline was tough for me. People might say ‘it's just a show' but she was a major part of my life for a decade and I am very sad to see her go," Billing said.

She understands viewers' grief and their intense relationship with Potts, and rejects the attitude that the character is not a real person.

"But I am [that person]. If you don't believe that you might as well ditch your music collection, chuck out all your novels at home and never go to the movies again … if you are not willing to get attached to a fictional character," Billing said on George FM.

The funeral for Potts screens on the soap tomorrow.

Sunday Star Times