Darren Franich
December 27, 2011 AT 02:30 PM EST

Few things are more beautiful in a TV series than the death of a main character. TV shows used to be created out of static component parts, with casts of characters that would only evolve very gradually, if at all. But that’s all changed in the last 10 years, first with the advent of death-happy cable networks — farewell, Big Pussy — and then with the mid-decade rise of serialized dramas that merrily killed off cast members in an effort to perpetually raise the narrative stakes. Nowadays, it’s practically essential for any remotely violent drama to kill off a main character in the season finale. Still, in the crowded TV graveyard of this blood-soaked 2011, 10 deaths stood out. Here are the 10 Best TV Character Deaths of 2011. (Spoilers, natch.)

10. Bill Henrickson, Big Love

HBO’s triple-family drama may have wandered a bit off course in its concluding seasons, but you can’t argue with the season finale, which saw patriarch Bill unexpectedly gunned down by his unhinged neighbor Carl. In theory, the sheer randomness of the act should have been depressing, but the closing minutes of Big Love showed Bill’s wives and loved ones moving on without him — an indelible portrait of grief shading into acceptance. Kind of like Six Feet Under, but without the old-age makeup.

9. Sheriff Graham, Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time‘s seventh episode focused almost entirely on a heretofore sideline character: the Irish-for-some-reason hipster lawman, Sheriff Graham. We learned about Graham’s secret past as the Huntsman; we saw him search for his heart; we saw him kiss Emma. And then he died, an unsuspecting victim of Evil Queen Regina. The episode was written by Once co-creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, who came from Lost — a show that became famous for deploying the Episode That Makes a Character Seem Awesome Right Before We Kill Them death twist. (Intriguingly, ABC’s other new nighttime soap — the all-rich-people-must-burn melodrama Revenge — also killed off a main character in its seventh episode. But we’ll give Graham the edge over Frank the Security Guy, since “having your heart crushed at the precise moment you remember your past life and consummate your romance” is a decidedly nobler death than “bludgeoned to death in a strip-club parking lot by an exotic dancer.”)

8. Otis, The Walking Dead

Our crack team of pop culture obituarists usually only allow genuine main-cast characters on our Top 10 List, which means either credited series regulars or guest stars who’ve logged enough screen time for their death to be meaningful. (Otherwise, this list would probably be renamed The 10 Best Decapitations on Game of Thrones.) But we’re making a minor exception for poor ranch hand Otis for three reasons: 1) Because when Otis expired in the third episode of Walking Dead‘s new season, the show had had such a short run that basically everyone seemed like a main character; 2) because Otis was a leading character in the Walking Dead comic book series, making his death a genuine shock for megafans;  3) because his murder was a shocking, cynical moment in a season that mostly settled in for slow-paced sentimentality. Shane’s decision to sacrifice Otis to a horde of walkers brought a much-needed sense of amorality to Walking Dead‘s universe. In that sense, it prefigured the glorious midseason finale, which saw the Dead gang gun down the adorable zombified husk that used to be Sophia. Which is not on this list, because zombies are not people.

7. The V Death Orgy

ABC’s V reboot was never very good. For the vast majority of its run, it was at its best when it was at its worst — when the nonsensically tangled conspiracy plot, the horrible CGI sets, the awkward teen-romance subplot, and Elizabeth Mitchell’s incredible ability to have sexual chemistry with every single male character would occasionally combine into a brain-shutdown cheesefest. But anyone who stuck with the show could at least thrill to the series finale, which killed off the show’s two lamest characters in such specifically horrifying ways that you had to imagine the writers were working through some emotional issues. Secret-alien Ryan tried to rescue his daughter… and she broke his neck with her lizard tail. Annoying teen Tyler wanted to rescue his alien girlfriend… and wound up losing his virginity to her sister-clone, who then proceeded to chomp out his jugular and bathe in his blood. Throw in the shocker death of original V regular Jane Badler, and you had the biggest body count in any hour of broadcast television this year. Oh and also, the world basically ended. Gratifying ending, shmatifying ending: This is how you end a low-rated TV show!

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