I keep wondering if I can enjoy a show like Sons of Anarchy, knowing that Johnny Lewis, like his character, died in a horrible way, after doing horrible things to someone else. Am I alone?
—Katherine, Texas, via Twitter
You certainly aren't alone in your thought process. Anytime a tragedy—big or small—intersects with mass media in some way, the same question is asked: Will this revelation about this terrible real-life person kill our enjoyment of this movie/TV show/genre/song forever?
"Fans who feel a strong emotional connection to Mr. Lewis will probably have a variety of reactions," predicts Mike Shapiro, an expert on the psychology of entertainment at Cornell University. "For some it will be too difficult to watch. For others it may be comforting to see him.
"I myself have never been able to watch the episode of 8 Simple Rules in which the father [played by John Ritter] dies, because of some of the parallels to my own father's death I probably wouldn't have been able to watch even if John Ritter hadn't really died, but that certainly amplified my reaction."
In Ritter's case, of course, the actor was a beloved figure.
This Lewis guy's case is closer to that of, say, Baretta star Robert Blake (who was tried and acquitted for murder) Naked Gun costar O.J. Simpson (ditto) or Austin Powers character actor Joseph Hyungmin Son, who is serving a life sentence for rape.
Those actors portrayed themselves one way only to reveal themselves as something very different—a betrayal that fans are slow to forgive, says Jack Powers, associate professor of television and radio at Ithaca College.
"The American audience seems to be very forgiving of some crimes and less forgiving of others," Powers says. "We seem to be harder on stars who portray themselves one way only to reveal themselves as some else in real life—Tiger Woods, for example."
Still, in the long term, the legacy of Sons of Anarchy isn't likely to be dramatically altered.
After all, we still get pleasure from watching shows about terrorism or airplane disasters in this post-9/11 era. We still will watch O.J. Simpson movies like The Naked Gun if they're on cable.
And some of us, at least, even still listen to Chris Brown music.
"Even with Chris Brown, as time has passed, we seem to have forgiven him for that. And today he is popular again, and it doesn't seem to be an issue anymore," Powers notes.
In the same vein, in the long run, "we will get no less pleasure" from watching Sons of Anarchy," Powers says. "In fact, my guess is that because of what happened yesterday, we would expect to see a little bit of a boost in interest."