Image: Kal Penn (L) and Peter Jacobson (R).
Fox
"No Dr. Taub, I am not high ... liaison to the arts and entertainment community and Asian-American groups is so a real job ... and stop calling me Dr. Kumar!"
Helen Popkin
By
msnbc.com
updated 4/8/2009 8:01:17 PM ET 2009-04-09T00:01:17

So Monday night was weird, huh?

NBC spy dramedy “Chuck” shifted from its standard covert unrequited love hijinks to introduce some fairly well-formed intrigue guest-starring Scott “Quantum Leap” Bakula as Chuck’s estranged dad who also happens to be rogue agent “Orion” with the key to getting the intercept out of Chuck’s head. Plus and also, Chevy Chase, as stand-in Steve Jobs, is evil.

Oh yeah ... and over on “House,” young Dr. Lawrence Kutner quite unexpectedly suicided via gunshot wound to the head.

As stunning and unexpected as this turn of events may’ve been, it was best not to try and discuss “Chuck” with Facebook friends or send a shout out via Twitter. Technotica’s attempt to do just that was met with a cyber slap, beginning with this response from Facebook friend “Kevin”: “Who was watching ‘Chuck?’ Kutner just got killed off on ‘House’... There were Kutner memorial groups on Facebook before the show was even over...

Indeed, “Kevin” was correct. A small portion of the Internet was totally freaking out. As “Kutner” rose quickly among Twitter’s top trends, “House” network Fox had already posted the official “In Loving Memory of Lawrence Kutner on House” Facebook fan page. The network simultaneously launched a fancier memorial on its home site, with notes of consolation and confusion from the show’s surviving characters. (Update: The Fox memorial disappeared on April 9, three days after the episode, but the Facebook memorial fan page remains.)

Blurring the divisions between real life and the TV box via the Interwebs is no longer new or exciting. Now it's just bizarre. Some people seem to like what others judge as Fox's latest callow and creepy attempt at emotional manipulation (remarkably, not involving a reality show). Either way, as far as Fox is concerned, this latest viral gambit is getting attention. What in the world is going on here?  Do we need to just turn off the Internet and go outside and play?

Facebook survival guide for awkward adultsAs the major networks scramble to distract their audiences from the siren cry of the computer screen, online TV tie-ins are increasingly more creative. “Lost” launched a trailblazing viral campaign with multiple faux Web sites, but let’s be clear. You couldn’t actually buy a ticket from doomed Oceanic airlines or apply for a job through the evil Hanso Foundation Web site. “Heroes,” too, launched a multitude of interesting Web components. But when “Hiro” talked about stopping time on his NBC blog, it was obvious this extension of the storyline was fictional.

On “House,” the Kutner memorial was posted before the audience knew Kal Penn, the actor who portrayed Dr. Kutner, was leaving the show. Because this well-guarded plot twist wasn’t revealed until the morning after the show, the sudden appearance of the elaborate online memorials caused some confused fans to believe that it was Penn who was actually dead.

That urban legend budding on Twitter and Facebook was quashed the following morning when it was announced that Penn, who campaigned for Barack Obama, left to take a position in the O administration as liaison to the arts and entertainment community and Asian-American groups. (Way to multitask Doc Kumar!) For many who knew Penn primarily for his role as Kumar in the film comedy, “Harold and Kumar go to White Castle” and its sequel, this just kept things weird enough to maintain interest.

By Wednesday, there were more than 21,700 “fans” of the official “In Loving Memory of Lawrence Kutner on House” Facebook fan page (Technotica's totally a fan of dead Doc Kumar!) as viewer-created memorial pages popped up around it. While the “House” logo is posted prominently on the page, it also features a remembrance from Dr. Lisa Cuddy, Dean of Medicine at Princeton Plainsboro Teaching hospital “where Dr. Kutner worked.” FYI: Dr. Cuddy and the Princeton Plainsboro Teaching hospital, like Dr. Kutner, and the other characters who wrote notes to the “deceased,” don’t actually exist, and are therefore, not actually grieving.

To be sure, genuine online memorial Web pages for real people who have actually died are confounding in their own right when grief is demonstrated with frowny-faced emoticons. Here, a character on the show is given a place in a public forum as a real person who has killed himself, and whose fellow characters interact with the real world.

Most of the fans posting on the Facebook page seem unfazed by this blurring of boundaries, lamenting the loss of a beloved character while clear that no one is actually dead — or they're just cracking “White Castle” stoner jokes.

Another Technotica Facebook friend, Ingmar Goldson, was just curious. Not one to watch TV Webisodes or read blogs written by television characters, the 26-year-old “House” fan found himself for the first time digging around on the Internet for reasons behind the Kutner character getting killed off. “I didn't lose any sleep over it,” he said in a phone conversation. “But no TV character's death has caused me to dig that type of information up so quickly.”

What Goldson found made him more interested in Penn’s new government post than the show. He wasn’t alone. By Tuesday evening, the night after the “House” death, “Kal Penn” had replaced “Kutner” as a top Twitter trend. As the Internet learned to let go, tweets evolved from, “Still in shock about Lawrence Kutner” to “can't believe Kutner left ‘House’  to work for Obama....Hugh Laurie is much hotter!!

Turns out, on the Internet, grief is sometimes fake, and evidently, short lived. Meanwhile, on a very special episode of “House,” suicide is something writers pull out of their collective derrières to punish politically ambitious actors and trick audiences into caring.

Don’t worry Twitter tweeps, “House” scribes remembered to buy their way out of hell with that “suicide is real” public service announcement tacked on the end of the episode, in addition to all those creepily crafted memoriams. Were Kal Penn not dead, he could’ve delivered that very special message himself, like the epilogue of every obligatory very special episode of every show in the ‘70s and '80s.

Oh wait, Kal Penn isn’t dead. His character, Dr. Kutner, is dead. Right, right. It’s just so confusing.

Helen A.S. Popkin promises to give you plenty of grief if you follow her on Twitter, or just mildly annoy you after you've friended her on Facebook.

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