The Show Must Go On: What Happens When a Series Loses Its Lead?
September 21, 2011 by Ben Phelps
It’s the nature of the television business: Popular shows can’t just call it quits if a lead actor opts not to renew his or her contract. Even though their ratings tend to decline over the years as costs only increase, these hits are simply too valuable for the networks to let them go. Success stories are hard to come by, and thus the networks have to milk the ones they have for all they’re worth, even if it means replacing a beloved lead character.
This TV season, the doctrine of longevity over creativity is rearing its head on several different series, most notably THE OFFICE and LAW & ORDER: SVU on NBC, and TWO AND A HALF MEN and the original CSI on CBS. (HOUSE, on Fox, is also losing a major player in Lisa Edelstein, but since the medical drama is more the Hugh Laurie Show than anything else, and Huddy broke up last season anyway, the writers should be able to handle that one no problem.)
In the case of THE OFFICE, James Spader is coming in to replace Steve Carell. His character, Robert California, who was introduced in last season’s finale, will actually be taking over for Jo Bennett (Kathy Bates) as CEO of Sabre, but even though he won’t be the new Michael Scott, Spader will still be getting the top billing.
Although it is arguable that THE OFFICE without Michael Scott is not THE OFFICE, NBC couldn’t afford to lose its Thursday night anchor, and if the show is going to continue, it was certainly a smart move on the producers’ part to not try to find someone who would simply replicate Carell’s performance. Will Ferrell’s disastrous arc last season proved another self-delusional office leader wasn’t going to work, and luckily we won’t have to sit through that, with one-time potential replacements Will Arnett committed to UP ALL NIGHT and Ricky Gervais not interested in reprising David Brent full-time. Last year’s “Dwight K. Schrute, (Acting) Manager” made it clear that a good OFFICE episode need not rely on Michael or any prominent guest stars, so it will be interesting to see how the addition of Robert California’s odd energy will affect the rest of the Scranton staff.
LAW & ORDER: SVU is only losing one half of its co-leads, but any Stabler/Benson fan will surely miss Christopher Meloni’s presence this season. The pair had been the centerpiece of the long-running procedural since its inception twelve seasons ago, but with Meloni unable to reach a new contract agreement, Mariska Hargitay will be without her longtime partner for the first time during this thirteenth season. Danny Pino (COLD CASE) and Kelli Giddish (PAST LIFE, CHASE) have been brought on as the new lead detectives, but the fact that Meloni needed two replacements may not bode well for SVU’s future. The original LAW & ORDER lasted 20 seasons, with a revolving door of cast members, but SVU has always had something unique in its bond between the two main characters, so it will be interesting to see if the series can live on without its central pairing.
Anyone who paid even an iota of attention to the news last spring knows the story with TWO AND A HALF MEN: Charlie Sheen went crazy (or just let loose the craziness that had been bubbling under the surface), publicly insulted series creator Chuck Lorre, and was subsequently fired by CBS. It seems like a no-brainer now, but the series is one of CBS’ – and TV’s – biggest hits, averaging 12.7 million total viewers and a 3.9 rating in adults 18-49 last season, and Sheen was a big part of that successful formula.
Now, though, Sheen is gone and his character, Charlie Harper, has died, paving the way for Ashton Kutcher to step into the lead role of Walden Schmidt, an “Internet billionaire who is nursing a broken heart,” as CBS president Nina Tassler put it at this summer’s TCA press tour. Kutcher had previous success as a sitcom star on THAT ’70s SHOW (which continues to do very well in syndication), and since his big-screen career didn’t quite take off in the way he probably hoped it would, a high-profile return to television was a smart move on his part. And since the Monday night season premiere garnered nearly 28 million viewers and a 10.3 rating, it looks like it was also a smart move by CBS – well worth the $700,000 per episode they’re reportedly paying him, especially since it’s still considerably less than Sheen’s $1.2 million.
CSI: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION is once again dealing with a departing lead actor, this time in the form of Laurence Fishburne, who is leaving the series two-and-a-half seasons after stepping in to replace original lead William Petersen. This time, Ted Danson – best known for his work on the classic sitcom CHEERS, but also adept at drama, as evidenced by his multiple Emmy wins for DAMAGES – will be taking over as DB Russell, a family man from Oregon coming to lead the night shift after the events of last season’s finale.
Due to its procedural nature, where the cases matter more than the characters, CSI is perhaps the least reliant of these series on its lead actor. But if the past is any indication, CSI fans still appreciate a compelling cast. Ratings markedly declined after Petersen left the series, but as much as the loss of Grissom hurt, the lack of a strong replacement hurt even more. Once Fishburne arrived on the scene, CSI seemed to turn into the “Ray Langston Show,” devoting the majority of screen time to the brooding former pathologist, despite his rookie investigator status. Not only did the show lose sight of the rest of the ensemble, but it also became much darker and more serious, robbing the already dark show (it is, inherently, about crime and murder) of its lighter moments. Danson seems like just the person to infuse the aging franchise mothership with a dose of levity – one it could really use as it moves off its longtime Thursday night perch to Wednesdays, to make way for the buzz-worthy new PERSON OF INTEREST.
It remains to be seen whether these actors will inject new life into their maturing shows, or if all the upheaval and readjustment will prove to be too much to handle. If one of them does fall from the top shelf of television’s most popular series, though, only so much of the blame can be placed on the loss of Carell, Meloni, Sheen, or Fishburne. All four actors made significant contributions to their shows, and it’s understandable that some fans may jump ship. But, really, this is a chance for the writers and producers involved in each series to become reinvigorated, to show they made the right call in continuing without their stars. There’s no reason THE OFFICE, LAW & ORDER: SVU, TWO AND A HALF MEN, and CSI cannot be as good, if not better, than they were before – it will just be with someone new in the spotlight.
That may sound like a lofty prospect, but the situation is not without precedent. While it is rare for four of TV’s most popular shows to all undergo major cast changes in the same season, series have certainly experienced upheaval before and lived through it (albeit with varying degrees of success):
* When Michael J. Fox left SPIN CITY after four seasons due to his Parkinson’s symptoms, none other than Charlie Sheen took over the lead, and the show survived two more seasons before being canceled, freeing up co-creator Bill Lawrence to concentrate on SCRUBS…
* …which saw Zach Braff phased out in the ninth and final season in favor of Kerry Bishé, as the show shifted its focus to med school. The unexpected “zombie season” suffered for trying to keep Braff around longer than necessary, and by the time he made a full exit and the show was actually showing signs of improvement, it was already too late.
* Ted Danson has also been on the other side of a cast shake-up, when his co-lead Shelley Long left CHEERS to concentrate on her film career and family. Although Sam and Diane were the lasting legacy of the series, it continued for six more seasons with Kirstie Alley as the female lead and cemented its status as one of the all-time great TV sitcoms.
* VALERIE had to contend with losing not only its lead actress, but also the one after whom the show was named. Valerie Harper left over a disagreement about the direction of the shows after two seasons, but the show continued for four more years, under the new titles VALERIE’S FAMILY: THE HOGANS and, later, simply THE HOGANS.
* Although it seems to happen more frequently with comedies, drama series have also had their share of lead actor turnover. NYPD BLUE lost David Caruso after just one season, but compensated by turning David Franz’s Andy Sipowicz into the lead and pairing him with several capable partners (including Jimmy Smits, Rick Schroder, and Mark-Paul Gosselaar) over the show’s 12-season run.
* ER, though more of an ensemble, certainly had a first-among-equals in George Clooney for the first five seasons. When he departed to become a movie star, Noah Wyle gained more prominence, followed by Mekhi Phifer, John Stamos and others in the later years.
The value of Steve Carell, Christopher Meloni, Charlie Sheen and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Laurence Fishburne to their respective shows certainly cannot be denied. But as history has shown, replacing a lead actor is just part of the business, and if done well, this upcoming season will be far from the last we see of THE OFFICE, LAW & ORDER: SVU, TWO AND A HALF MEN, and CSI.
What do you think the prospects are for the new seasons of these shows? Are you sad to see the original stars go, glad to have some new blood, or maybe a little of both?