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Unperson / Live-Action TV

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Unpersons in live-action TV.

  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome is a television example of making someone an "unperson" – a character that has some importance to the show's main premise will be dropped, with no proper farewell or explanation, and they are not referred to again. Even "dated" photographs will have the ex-family member cropped out. This "unperson" trope was named for a Happy Days character who was Richie Cunningham's older brother, Chuck. Chuck ended up being a superfluous character who usually appeared only in transitional scenes, was never given any meaningful dialogue, and was eventually written out without explanation. In fact, in the series' 1984 finale ("Passages", where Joanie and Chachi are married), Cunningham patriarch Howard toasts his family and mentions that his two children have married well ... leading longtime fans of the show, who were aware that originally there were three children, to scratch their heads and wonder "Where's Chuck?" (In a blooper reel, Tom Bosley indeed asks that question after the final cut.) Numerous other "unperson" examples of the Chuck Cunningham Syndrome exist; see that page for more details.

  • Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:
    • After HYDRA emerges from the shadows in the first season and Coulson and his team are forced to go into hiding, he has Daisy erase all records of their existence, as she had done for herself before joining up.
    • In Season Four, S.H.I.E.L.D. has had their reputation rehabilitated and can operate publicly again... but Coulson has to step down as director because he's still officially dead and dead men can't be the heads of official agencies.
  • The episode "Into Thin Air" of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, based on the legend of "The Vanishing Hotel Room". In the opening of the episode, Hitch says that his film The Lady Vanishes is also based on this legend, though, if so, it's pretty loosely.
  • Alice: The 1983 episode "Sweet, Erasable Mel" humorously plays with the "unperson" concept when Vera accidentally erases all of Mel's financial records on his new computer. Naturally, Mel panics and believes he's been virtually erased from existence, but when he and Alice go to the bank to recover the information, the computers there go haywire, and it appears everything there is lost, too. (Everything works out in the end.)
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  • In Banshee the local Amish community treats Kai Proctor like this. Proctor was born Amish but was thrown out of the Actual Pacifist community when he used a hammer to defend himself against an attack by some local criminals. Instead of seeking atonement and forgiveness, he instead embraced a life of violence and became the local crime kingpin. In the series premiere he saves some Amish, including his father, from a beating by a bunch of toughs and instead of thanking him, the Amish act as if he does not even exist.
  • Played for laughs on The Big Bang Theory. Howard, Sheldon and Leonard spend a year building a special gyroscope for the military only to have the prototype confiscated once they're done. Coming home, the trio step into a completely empty apartment. Sheldon naturally jumps to the idea that the military are going to erase their identities and eliminate them to cover up their research. Howard then points out that they simply got off on the wrong floor and this is an apartment to rent (it's also a bit of Leaning on the Fourth Wall as the 'staircase' is a one-story set and the 'halls' on the floor they don't occupy are the same, just without Sheldon or Leonard's apartment numbers on the doors or the elevator 'do not enter' tape shifted around the doors to maintain the illusion).
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  • In the last season of Blake's 7 a character mentions that Servalan is now considered an unperson by the Terran Federation.
  • The Brady Bunch: Temporarily, in the 1972 episode "Jan, the Only Child". Here, Jan feels insecure about her place as the middle daughter of a six-child blended family. When she is unable to get along with her siblings – almost always, these arguments are over privacy, courtesy and personal space issues – and declares she wants to become an only child, her sibilings (who tried to accommodate her) are so offended that they declare her invisible ... ignoring her and staying out of her way. It isn't long before a tearful Jan declares she wants to become a person again in her siblings' eyes.
  • In Breaking Bad, the fear of becoming this is one of the things that drives Walter White/Heisenberg to make his final moves in the Grand Finale, after previously resigning himself to his fate. Even the tagline for Season 5B, the final eight episodes of the series was, Remember My Name!
  • At the end of Chernobyl, Legasov's courtroom outburst would have likely resulted in this trope if not for Legasov having just given a speech at an international summit. Having him killed or "disappeared" would look bad for the Soviet Union, so the KGB browbeat him into retreating from the public eye and remove all authority from him, while keeping his official position. He's forbidden from ever speaking to anyone connected to Chernobyl. The deputy director of the KGB knows that Legasov is too much a coward to risk defying him. What he doesn't consider is that Legasov has less than 5 years left to live thanks to the radiation exposure. Two years later, Legasov records everything on tapes and hangs himself in his apartment. The investigation and the tapes end up blowing the lid off the Soviet government's attempts at sweeping the disaster under the rug and forces them to correct the fatal flaw in the RBMK reactors that resulted in the disaster.
  • In the second half of Chuck's fourth season, a significant plot arc centers around a mysterious figure named Agent X, of which no record can be found. It turns out, there was an Intersect agent before Chuck: Hartley Winterbottom, a close friend of Stephen Bartowski's, who uploaded an experimental version of the Intersect designed to temporarily overwrite his personality and memories with an alias for mission purposes. It turns out the test had Gone Horribly Right and Hartley's personality was permanently overwritten. The CIA subsequently attempted to erase all trace of his existence, and it was only Stephen's efforts to fix it that enabled the team to eventually track him down. As Alexei Volkoff.
  • The character of Kevin Webster, who for twenty years had been a fixture of soap opera Coronation Street, might have gone this way as the actor playing him, Michael Le Vell, was accused of several serious sexual offences. Before his trial the actor was suspended from the show and the storylines featuring him fell into a plot void. However Le Vell was completely exonerated and he and his character returned to the series averting this trope.
  • One UnSub in Criminal Minds was run out of a small town as a teenager, at which point his family got rid of any evidence of him and the town silently agreed to never speak of him again.
  • In Daredevil Bill Fisk, Wilson Fisk's abusive father, becomes this after Wilson becomes The Kingpin. Wilson has all public records of his father erased, and it is so thoroughly done that even an experienced reporter like Ben Ulrich has trouble finding any evidence that Bill even existed. The best Ben can find is a photo that shows an election campaign poster with Bill's face on it that was missed because it was part of a story that had nothing to do with Bill or the election.
  • Doctor Who:
    • "World War Three": At the end, the Doctor gives Mickey Smith a disc that contains a virus that will erase all evidence of the Doctor from the internet, as if he never existed. Mickey chooses not to use it, and explains why on a tie-in site.
    • "The Long Game" has an interesting take on the trope. The Editor finds the Doctor and Rose dangerous because he can't find any information on them at all — they don't exist in the records of the Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire.
      "But that's why you're so dangerous. Knowledge is power, yet you remain unknown."
    • "The End of Time": One of the weapons used by the Time Lords or the Daleks in the Last Great Time War was "the Could-Have-Been King with his army of Meanwhiles and Never-Weres".
    • We learn in Series 7 of the new series that the Eleventh Doctor has been doing this to himself, wiping out all mention of himself from every database he can get to. One of the ones he can't (the Dalek semi-Hive Mind), someone else does it for him. It's later pointed out to him that this has only partially worked, since in his over-eagerness to wipe all traces of himself from history, he's left a giant "Doctor-shaped hole" where he used to be, making his existence fairly obvious to anyone who bothered to look.
    • In "The Name of the Doctor", an incarnation of the Doctor (played by John Hurt), who crossed the Moral Event Horizon is this to the Doctor to the point that he's suppressed all memories of this incarnation and denied him the very name "The Doctor".
      • It is eventually revealed that this version of the Doctor is the one who fought in the Time War, and ended it by destroying both races. Subverted, when the Tenth and Eleventh versions realize how unfair this is, saying he was the Doctor more than any of them. In fact it was originally the War Doctor himself who refused to use the title, thinking himself unworthy of it.
    • In "Hell Bent", this is what becomes of Clara Oswald, at least to the Doctor, when he erases his memories of her, or at least the memories related to her appearance and his feelings for her. Later episodes hinted that others may have had their knowledge of her erased as well, specifically Missy who makes no reference to the lost companion upon her next (chronological) meeting with the Doctor, despite her own character arc being tied to her. Even extends to spin-off media: comic book miniseries Supremacy of the Cybermen, despite being a direct sequel to "Hell Bent", contains no reference to Clara anywhere, even from individuals who were directly involved with the character.
      • This is eventually undone for the Doctor, however: in "Twice Upon a Time", shortly before his regeneration, the Twelfth Doctor gets his memories of her restored by the Testimony.
    • "The Witchfinders": Graham mentions early on that a witch tour he once went on never mentioned Bilehurst Cragg. At the end, King James decrees that the village's name will be wiped from all records so no one will ever know what happened there.
  • The Dukes of Hazzard: Coy and Vance, who were "unpersons" before their arrival in Hazzard in 1982 – to replace Bo and Luke, after John Schneider and Tom Wopat sat out most of Season 5 as part of a dispute – and became "unpersons" after Bo and Luke returned. Indeed, the two "fake Dukes" are never spoken of again (in first-run episodes, anyway; their legacy remains in reruns) ... and it is as though they never existed.
    • The series itself became an Un-Program in 2015. Due to rising controversy over the Confederate battle flag's alleged racist symbolism, everything from reruns to General Lee models were pulled from public consumption.
  • Game of Thrones:
    • In "Battle of the Bastards", when Ramsay Bolton is defeated, Sansa Stark promises this is going to happen to him and his house.
      Sansa: Your words will disappear. Your house will disappear. Your name will disappear. All memory of you will disappear.
    • In "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms", Bran reveals the Night King plans to do this to the entire human race once his army of the dead wipes humanity out.
  • Good Times: Happened with Carl Dixon, a recurring character toward the end of Season 4. To explain Esther Rolle's departure from the show, she married Carl and left for Arizona (to tend to his failing health) in the 1976-1977 season finale. Rolle agreed to return in 1978 under a number of conditions, one of which was that Carl — a hardcore atheist who somehow marries a devout Christian — never existed. The producers met her demand, and indeed, during the final season (1978-1979), there is nary a mention of Carl.
  • Played for laughs in an episode of The IT Crowd, where Roy removes his ex-girlfriend from photos of the two of them together. Moss says it's "like breaking up with Stalin".
  • Jeopardy!: Any contestant who finishes Double Jeopardy! with $0 or a negative score is disqualified from the game's final round, Final Jeopardy! Not only are they not behind their lectern, they aren't even shown with the other players chatting with host Alex Trebek during the closing credits sequence.
  • Late Night with Conan O'Brian had a segment focusing on the ill-fated XFL note . One of the jokes was that the last game of the season would begin with the burial of all XFL merchandise in a landfill, taking the executives responsible for the failed league in a helicopter and dropping them from the sky into the field, and having an orbital satellite erase everyone's memory on earth of the XFL.
  • Trope is mentioned by name in M*A*S*H when a clerical error declares Hawkeye dead. At first he sees it as a way out of the normal military grind until he finds he can't tell his father he's all right... and isn't getting paid.
  • Events far outside his control turned Eddie McCleister into this in the miniseries The Lost Room. Specifically, the Event which created the title room and its Objects also included the man inside, hereby immortal, erased from history and known only as either John Doe or "The Occupant". Even his wife had no memory of him, being very disturbed by the Wedding Photo which depicted them married in the previous timeline.
  • A very localized version occurs in an episode of Monk, where Monk meets a stranger at an inn. The man disappears, and then the next day everyone acts like the guy never existed, prompting Monk to worry that he might have hallucinated him (he was under the influence of alcohol at the time). The man really did exist; the other guests found him dead then covered it up so they could steal his money.
  • Spoofed in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (specifically, the episode featuring the movie Devil Fish). In the teaser, Mike tells the audience that a mysterious government conspiracy erased his whole identity and life. Midway through his speech about he'll never rest until he rights this wrong, we learn the truth: he just lost his wallet. Tom and Crow find it and return it. Identity back, problem solved... until it happens again.
  • Nowhere Man: Tom Veil's identity is scrubbed from all records by the conspiracy, and his family, relatives and friends no longer recognise him. Over the series, he meets a number of other people who have suffered this too - even a whole town of them. Subverted when it's revealed in the final episode that Tom Veil never existed in the first place; it was simply a false memory given to the protagonist and presumably the other unpersons he'd encountered in the series.
  • Person of Interest. In "Mors praematura", detainees who have been taken to a government Black Site have been declared legally dead so they can be legally tortured and held without trial.
  • The Price Is Right: Bob Barker's ill-will toward the classic Barker's Beauties – Janice Pennington, Dian Parkinson, Holly Hallstrom and Kathleen Bradley – has grown to the point where he refuses to talk about them in interviews, and in his autobiography doesn't even acknowledge they were even on the show; their work has gone completely unacknowledged by Barker, in essence making them, in his view, "unpersons". For instance, in commentary about the pricing game Cliff Hangers, he remarks simply that "one of the models" – giving no indication that the model in question was Pennington – ran off the set crying after that game's first playing when nighttime host Dennis James unwittingly and unknowingly referred to the "mountain climber" as Fritz. (Pennington's husband – Friedrich "Fritz" Stammberger – had disappeared in Afghanistan while mountain climbing a year earlier). Barker's dislike for Hallstrom in particular has led to speculation that he refuses to allow reruns of shows featuring Hallstrom as a model.
  • In Prison Break, all evidence of Paul Kellerman's involvement with the president was erased after he fell from the Company's favor.
  • On Real Time with Bill Maher, Bill accused the Republican party of doing this to George W. Bush and his presidency at the 2012 Republican National Convention.
    Bill: If your party can run the country for 8 years, and then hold a convention and not invite Bush, [Dick] Cheney, [Donald] Rumsfeld, Karl Rove, or Tom DeLay, you're not a political movement, you're the witness protection program. If you're gonna hold a convention and not invite your most recent president, your most recent vice-president, your most recent vice-presidential nominee, or most of the runners-up from your most recent primary, why not just wave one of those Men in Black memory-eraser wands and make us forget everything we ever knew about you?
  • In the Red Dwarf episode "The Inquisitor", the title character does this as part of his sentencing on those whom he feels wasted their lives.
  • Deconstructed during a "Weekend Update" sketch on Saturday Night Live in March 2019. When revived allegations against R. Kelly and Michael Jackson led to the withdrawal or boycott of their music, Pete Davidson pointed out that pretending they hadn't existed also means pretending that the terrible things they allegedly did hadn't happened either. He then finishes by saying that it's possible to still like their work as long as you're willing to acknowledge that they were deeply flawed people.
  • Lex Luthor threatens to do this to a corrupt journalist in an episode of Smallville.
    • And Chloe does a variation of this to herself when she leaves in season ten. It's not fully complete (Lois was able to access high school newspaper articles she had written, for one) but it works well enough.
  • In Star Trek: Discovery second season finale "Such Sweet Sorrow", to prevent anyone from discovering where the Discovery went along with it's Sphere data and prevent the resurgence of the AI Control, Spock suggests doing this towards the Discovery and its crew, making it treason to even mention them. This also leads to the reason why Discovery was never brought up in canon.
  • On Star Trek: The Next Generation, this is the fate of a Klingon who suffers "discommendation". He is banished from the Klingon Empire, and his name is never spoken again.
    • An entire alien species actively works to remain an "un-species" because of their extreme xenophobia. When the Enterprise accidentally discovers them they are dissuaded from destroying it after the crew manages after a dry run, to erase all traces of the contact from their memories and Picard orders Data never to reveal their existence.
  • Step by Step: Young Brendan is shunned (unfairly) by his older siblings and stepsiblings in "Back to Basics". Why? For the "send him to hell" crime of having a months-overdue video that was found under his bed. Carol had found it, declared it the last straw in a series of increasingly irresponsible behavior by her children/step-children, and imposed a crackdown on privileges. Brendan is immediately targeted and is yelled at and/or shunned ... then becomes an "unperson" when Carol stiffens the punishment for their abusive behavior. Brendan eventually has enough and runs away to the only place where he's considered a person ... Cody's van! Carol and Frank eventually realize they were being too harsh on Brendan and help him to become a person again — by making the others apologize.
  • Taken: In "High Hopes", Owen Crawford tells Howard Bowen and Marty Erickson that when he assumed leadership of the UFO project, he had their names and those of everyone else under his command removed from every military and personnel list in existence. They are essentially non-people, meaning that they would find it very difficult to have a life if the project was shut down.
  • The Twilight Zone (1959):
    • "Person or Persons Unknown" concerned an average man who wakes up one morning and finds that no one recognizes him or has any memory of him. Not his wife, his boss and coworkers, or the bartender he sees once a week. He knows all of them and the facts are unchanged but no memory of him (pictures with his wife have her standing alone) exists. The episode ends with an inversion: the man wakes from his nightmare only to find that he does not recognize his wife.
    • "And When The Sky Was Opened" is this trope in a nutshell. Three men return home from a space mission and then one man starts disappearing from sight and no one remembers him. All evidence he exists (the glass he dropped, pictures) either aren't there or don't show him. The newspaper now says 2 spacemen return instead of 3. Soon after he disappears. Then the same happens to another spaceman, the newspaper now saying 1 returned. And finally it ends with the last man disappearing when the nurse offers the room to 3 malaria patients. Even the hospital beds aren't there. It's then taken Up to Eleven when the spaceship disappears.
  • The Twilight Zone (1985):
    • In "The Card", a mercilessly efficient credit card company will repossess parts of a person's life if they overdraft, including the protagonist's children. It's left unclear as to how they do this: at the beginning of the episode it appears that they merely take people, reprogram them to believe that they are someone else, and change all records, but, as it goes on, it appears that it may be something much more sinister.
    • In "To See The Invisible Man", a man is sentenced to a year of Unperson status as a punishment for "coldness". The authorities affix a mark to his forehead so everyone else will know to shun him.
  • Aliens do this to a salary man in an episode of Ultraseven.
  • The Syndicate in The X-Files is fond of this to cover its tracks with people who give Mulder too much information or people who are no longer of use.


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