Major actor exits and show exits with it. It seems like a rather obvious statement that a show can’t recuperate after losing something as integral to its identity as the main actor/character. Time and time again shows’ stories have faltered and they haven’t been able to recover viewership when the main actor or an actor crucial to the story departs. The show sometimes tries to replace the actor with a new face such as The Office did when Steve Carell’s teddy bear of a character Michael Scott left and was replaced by potential sex addict and utter creep Robert California played by James Spader. And in other cases, the show completely reinvents itself such as when Scrubs lost Zach Braff’s John Dorian and the teaching hospital the characters worked at turned into a medical school over the summer hiatus and the audience was completely thrown off guard.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a great show that could function without its main character. Imagine if Friends had fired David Schwimmer and we suddenly found out about Monica’s other brother Paul or The Simpsons lost Homer and refocused to become about the chronicles of Itchy and Scratchy. These two scenarios might sound ridiculous but crazier things have happened in the real-life world of television and the result has never been good. Almost always after a show loses an important character, it’s an omen that signals that a painful death is imminent for the show. And that’s only being a little dramatic.
Major Actor Exits: 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter and House of Cards and the Ugly Truth of Unplanned Character Departures.
When John Ritter unexpectedly died while filming season two of 8 Simple Rules, cast, crew, and fans of the show were all caught completely off guard. There were two choices for executives at that point, either end the show or find a way to explain Ritter’s disappearance from the show and trek on. They chose the second option and needless to say, it did not go well. First off, Ritter’s absence from the show was explained by his character suddenly dying. This was arguably the most respectful possible send-off for Paul but unfortunately, it didn’t go over well.
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We all remember Kevin Spacey being #MeTooed and his hiding under the LGBTQ+ rainbow in order to defend himself. What you may not remember is that House of Cards still continued on for another season after Spacey left. I’m of course not arguing that he should not have been fired from House of Cards. Executives definitely made the right call there. But the sixth season of House of Cards had significantly reduced viewership. Would it have been more respectful to the movement against sexual harassment and assault to have just ended the show Spacey left so huge a mark on, a show that a good amount of its viewership was watching the show just for Spacey’s performance?
That 70s Show and The Office and How a Show Breaks Irreparably When its Core is Lost
That 70s Show is a unique case because it lost not one but two members of its main cast in the last season. Eric Foreman was played by Topher Grace was the emotional core of the show. His relationship with Donna was a central theme in the first seven seasons of the show. Ashton Kutcher was a driving comedic force in the show as bumbling buffoon Michael Kelso. These two characters were essential to the formula that made That 70s Show so great. Their departure cannot entirely be blamed for the show ending as a show called That 70s Show can’t really go into the 80s and the show was already up to ’79 when Kelso and Eric left. Still, the show again wasn’t strong enough to hold its own without these two characters. Both characters were replaced in the last season.
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Josh Meyers’ Randy replaced Eric as Donna’s love interest and Tommy Chong returned to the show to fill the comedic hole left in the show by Kelso’s departure. Donna’s character took a major hit and she felt less lovable because she moved on from the love of her life for seven seasons after a couple of episodes. Leo was an old favorite of the show since his original appearance in earlier seasons but as Leo was somewhere between the ages of 30 and 70, it would be weird if he hung out in the basement with a bunch of teenagers and the basement was a core set piece of the show.
Of course, Dunder-Mifflin had to find another manager without Michael, and that’s when Robert California was hired, took one look at the office and instead of accepting the position of regional manager convinced the CEO of Dunder Mifflin Sabre to let him take her position. Therein lies exactly why Robert California wasn’t a good replacement for Michael. He replaced Michael’s love for his employees with condescension and a sense that he was above them. He replaced Michael’s puppy-like loyalty to Dunder Mifflin with a general lack of care for its well being. Robert California would have been good in a more cold-hearted drama like House of Cards and I can even see him fighting for the Iron Throne but he definitely wasn’t meant to be an employee in the warmhearted office of Dunder Mifflin.
So that’s my unsolicited advice for TV Series creators, end the show after the major actor exits.
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Carrie Fishbane is obsessed with all things comedy and loves to reflect on the impact of comedy on the world. Having spent thousands of hours studying literature, she also writes about the political impact of entertainment and the power movies and TV have to create social change. Hollywood Insider promotes ethics and substance in entertainment, which is exactly in line with Carrie’s perspective. Carrie’s favorite movies include Jojo Rabbit, Deadpool, and Inception and her favorite shows are Rick and Morty, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and The Office.