Shows can outlive their stars, but not all of them should

“Cheers” was able to survive without Shelley Long (above, with Ted Danson).
“Cheers” was able to survive without Shelley Long (above, with Ted Danson).

As ugly stories of sexual misconduct by powerful men continue to surface in Hollywood, more and more scripted TV shows are being affected. Kevin Spacey is out at Netflix’s “House of Cards,” which may or may not continue for its final season minus its principal character. Leading man Jeffrey Tambor has left Amazon’s “Transparent,” a still-thriving show that may be heading into a fifth season nonetheless. Louis C.K.’s “Louie” is over at FX. And Jeremy Piven’s “Wisdom of the Crowd” may be heading for a shake-up, as CBS looks into a trio of assault allegations against him.

While the growing sense of freedom to voice claims of mistreatment by powerful men is new, actors leaving shows mid-run is not. There is a long history of Shows Interrupted, some due to death (Cory Monteith of “Glee,” John Ritter of “8 Simple Rules”), some due to misbehavior (Charlie Sheen of “Two and a Half Men”), some due to illness (Michael J. Fox of “Spin City”), and some due to money and ego (David Caruso of “NYPD Blue”).

Over the years, the solutions to these disruptions have ranged from the brilliant success of bringing in Jimmy Smits to fill the gap left by Caruso to the pathetic attempt by Fox to continue “That ‘70s Show” without two central players, Ashton Kutcher and Topher Grace. Everything turned out well for “Cheers,” which brought in a flashy replacement — Kirstie Allie — after Shelley Long left the NBC sitcom. But everything was dismal when ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and PBS’s “Downton Abbey” resorted to fan-upsetting deaths upon the departures of Patrick Dempsey and Dan Stevens, respectively. Bring up the topic of Matthew among “Downton” people and you’ll see: They still feel the sting.


Part of me wants to tell the makers of “House of Cards,” “Transparent,” and “Wisdom of the Crowd” to just throw in the towel, just as PBS has given up “Charlie Rose.” Sometimes, moving on after a hideous chapter is the best answer, rather than trying to patch over the damage and resume. But there are other considerations here, and I’m not talking about the money the TV outlets want to continue making or the prestige they want to continue milking with the likes of “Transparent,” Amazon’s Emmy breakthrough show. The outlets have many other shows and opportunities to turn to.

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I’m talking about the other cast members and crew members who are depending on the show that was just firebombed by one of its performers. These people will suffer directly if the show is simply killed off; they will constitute further damage, after the men and women who were victimized by the creep in question. Fans, too, will pay a price — perhaps not with the cancellation of a show such as “Wisdom of the Crowd,” a poorly conceived (and poorly rated) procedural, but certainly with the end of a groundbreaker such as “Transparent,” which has been a great step forward for trans Americans.

So I grudgingly accept that it’s not always right to kill off a thriving show, even when that appears to be the obvious creative solution. Generally, continuing with the sudden loss of a character works better on shows with large casts. “House” without its titular character might have been absurd, and “Transparent” without its trans parent — Tambor’s Maura Pfefferman — seems silly. Forgive me if you are an “X-Files” diehard, but that series had no business continuing once David Duchovny left in season eight. The Fox show was already fading creatively anyway.

Certainly “Transparent” features a number of compelling characters, in addition to Maura. Her children and her ex-wife, Shelly, played by Judith Light, are fascinatingly lost and looking. But the show’s narrative hinges on Maura, at least for me, as well as on Tambor’s extremely sensitive performance. If “Transparent” were an anthology series, of course, switching to another family including a trans person could succeed, but since that is not the case, a Maura-less “Transparent” sounds tricky. If creator Jill Soloway can make it work, more power to her.

It’s much easier to deal with the loss of an actor who’s part of an ensemble show, or part of the supporting cast. Indeed, ensemble shows can change up across the years without much damage, since the concept — usually solving crimes as on “CSI” or curing patients as on “ER” — is bigger than any single cast member. When George Clooney left “ER,” for example, it was a noticeable alteration, but he was only a part of a whole. The action continued without him, and the producers continued to bring in fresh blood as many original cast members eventually moved on. Mandy Patinkin’s early exit and Shemar Moore’s late exit from CBS’s “Criminal Minds” also went smoothly on screen, since the cases of the week are the true stars of the show.


One of the successful ensemble departures of recent years was by Josh Charles, who left CBS’s “The Good Wife” mid-series. Like many actors in long-running shows, he was ready to pursue other challenges. The writers created a shocking murder, and since the central story line had always revolved around Julianna Margulies, and since the series was famous for its massive cast of recurring characters, his absence wasn’t fatal. The producers of NBC’s “The Office” had a harder time dealing with the departure of Steve Carell after season seven. It was an ensemble show, but Carell was a fan favorite, and efforts to distract from the loss with a series of guest stars were hollow. Also, the comedy was already showing its age by the time Carell left.

It will be interesting to see how HBO and “Silicon Valley” deal with the absence of T.J. Miller in the next season; his Erlich Bachman, like Carell’s Michael Scott, has been one of the funniest cast members. Let’s see if his absence makes the story lines wander.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.