Sink or Swim: A Look Back at TV Shows That Lost Their Lead


Steve Carell is officially gone from The Office and, between that and this whole royal wedding thing, it feels like the world has sobbed itself dry. In fact, we just tried to cry as an experiment and couldn’t because there are no tears left. None at all. But do we blame the people? No, not really. Michael Scott’s goodbye on The Office was heart-wrenching, and it was hard to see our beloved Dunder Mifflinites go through that painful farewell, especially since every moment was underscored with the uncertainty of how the show itself will cope in future seasons. Will it sink or swim? It’s hard to say, but The Office is hardly the first show to part with a leading man or lady. After the jump, we calculate the odds with a look back at how some of the biggest shows fared after cutting main characters loose.

Eric Foreman, That ’70s Show

According to the show’s script, Eric left home to teach in Africa during the show’s eighth and final season, but, really, Topher Grace ran off to play Venom in Spider-Man 3. The show replaced our lovably dry, clumsy, and kind of geeky Eric with Randy Pearson, the poofy-haired, Donna-dating Eric wannabe. Fans were outraged when Donna broke up with Eric over the phone to be with Randy and, towards the end of the season, they began to phase him out. The show concluded with Eric coming back and telling Donna he missed her and that he was dumb to leave. Well, duh.

Marissa Cooper, The O.C.

Of all the glamorous, angsty teenage wrecks on The O.C., Marissa Cooper was the most glamorous, angsty, and wrecked. From her on-again, off-again substance abuse to her wavering bisexuality to that time she shot a guy, Marissa never quite seemed to be in control of anything — as communicated by her constant, blank, glazed-over stare. So, thinly veiled soap opera that it was, The O.C. had her killed and the show didn’t really know what to do with itself after that. The fourth and final season featured Marissa’s younger sister, Kaitlin, more prominently. That, naturally, was terrible.

Becky Conner, Roseanne

Becky was Rosanne’s brainy, oldest daughter, a character who was originally supposed to be phased out when the actress who played original-Becky, Lecy Goranson, went to go to college after season five. It was explained on camera that Becky had gotten married and moved out, and Goranson signed on for the eighth season, believed to be its last, presumably to finish up the role. But the writers decided they didn’t want to lose Becky, so they cast Sarah Chalke as Becky for seasons six and seven, leading to an unusual situation in season eight that had the two of them switching off on an episodic basis, until Chalke took over for good in the show’s actual final year, season nine. It was an odd situation, but the show was known for poking fun at the constantly changing Becky, which only made us like Roseanne more.

J.D., Scrubs

The most recent correlate to the Michael Scott situation was the exit of Zach Braff’s J.D. on Scrubs and the network’s decision to continue the show centered on the ensemble cast. J.D., perpetually torn between his silly, boyish impulses and his deep discontent with how he was handling his life, was the core of the show, and watching him go really did leave odds that the show would go on looking slim. Its eighth season finale was even titled, “My Finale,” for crying out loud! But, ABC renewed the show, throwing together a grab bag of new, young doctors to replace the show’s core. The plan must have failed, because the show only made it for one season after Braff’s departure.

Izzie Stevens, Grey’s Anatomy

We don’t care much for silly primetime network dramas, but Grey’s Anatomy surely did one heck of a job convincing everyone else to jump on board. The show has killed off plenty of people, but one of its most contested was Katherine Heigl’s character, Izzie. Things got political when Heigl withdrew her name from Emmy consideration because she didn’t think the character merited one. Tensions with the showrunner Shonda Rimes rose, and Heigl was released from her contract early. Rimes was planning on killing Izzie off-screen, but more recently has said she can’t go through with it. But, hey, they also killed off T.R. Knight’s George, a fan favorite who also left his contract, so we don’t know if they are totally in the clear. But, when you’ve got a soapy drama set in a hospital, those kinds of deaths are kind of part of the deal. If they touched McDreamy, maybe it would be another story, but for now, Grey’s is free to angst another day.

Chrissy Snow, Three’s Company

What’s Three’s Company without Chrissy? Two’s Company, probably. Suzanne Somers was a regular Charlie Sheen, demanding more money for her performance as Chrissy in season five. When they didn’t give it to her, she faked injury and didn’t show up for tapings. The network knew that the show’s popularity would take a huge hit without her, so they reached an agreement where she’d appear in 60-second scenes of episodes throughout the season. Eventually, the house just subbed her in for new roommates, starting with Chrissy’s clumsy cousin Cindy Snow. Mostly, it worked. The new roommates had a different vibe, but Cindy didn’t do a bad job filling in the vacant roommate spot (a plausible gap to begin with) with her klutzy ways, and the show was king until its final season even after another roommate switch.

Edie Britt, Desperate Housewives

Sexy, manipulative Edie Britt was a Desperate Housewives fan favorite, which, as we’ve seen, makes her a prime target for the writers’ axe. The decision to kill her probably had more to do with a highly publicized battle between actress Nicolette Sheridan and creator Marc Cherry, who are now in a legal scuffle over the wrongful termination of her contract. The show lost some of its charm and sass with Edie, and fans were quite upset, but, if you ask us, no one’s really cared about the show since Season 1. The loss of Edie was just a symptom of the disease.

Everyone, Lost

Everyone died on Lost. Okay, maybe not literally, but that show was killing people left and right, and, for a change, the fans ate it up. (And then, well, you know what happened on the last episode.) Sure, they cried at Charlie’s death. The main and obvious difference between Lost and many of the other shows on this list is why the casting changes were made: Does the character leave because of the actor’s or network’s interest, or is the departure a natural part of the story line? Neither is a guarantee that it’ll be good for the show, but in Lost’s case, the series was built around tragedy and suffering and the love and bonds that transcend them. Of course it’s hard to part with a beloved character, but Lost‘s cast changes never felt artificial.

Charlie Harper, Two and a Half Men

This one’s not so much a look back as a look ahead: after months of speculation as to whether Charlie Sheen would come back or whether they’d find a new Charlie, CBS announced yesterday they’re exploring a Two and a Half Men with Charlie written out entirely. If The Office might work as an ensemble show, why can’t Two and a Half Men? Oh, right, because it never worked in the first place. But, seeing as it maintained astronomical ratings despite being the worst show ever, we don’t think its fans would mind so much. How depressing.