TV networks will be waiting with baited breath to see how the Roseanne spin-off and sequel The Conners — why does the ‘e’ in the name irritate me? — performs this evening for ABC.
No doubt there’ll be considerable rubber-necking interest, which will see a healthy audience for the first episode. But that will be because of the void left by the absence of Roseanne Barr. Like Banquo’s ghost to Macbeth, Barr’s non-corporeal presence will be difficult to ignore. The manner of her departure will be in many viewers’ minds, too.
This isn’t the first time that the sudden loss of a lead actor in a hit series has resulted in broadcasters or platforms having to consider whether to carry on or call it a day. Over the last year or so, House of Cards (Netflix) and Lethal Weapon (Fox) have both lost lead actors. As with Roseanne, this happened for controversial reasons that have hung like a dark cloud over their new incarnations.
Lethal Weapon appears to have weathered the loss of Clayne Crawford with Seann William Scott as his more affable replacement but, with Damon Wayans now claiming to be at 58 years of age ‘too old for this shit’, it’s difficult to see the show continuing if he decides to walk while he still can.
Two and a Half Men managed to stagger on after the flight of Charlie Sheen for four more excruciating seasons, but to some, whatever quality control the show possessed was out of the window by 2015’s concluding series.
With the deeply dissatisfying, and frankly credulity-stretching, events of House of Cards’s fifth season — case in point, Underwood pushing Cathy Durant down the stairs in the White House — a Kevin Spacey-less final run may see a return to form. It can hardly get worse, but you never know.
Other series have managed to find a life after the departure of the presumed star – notably NYPD Blue after David Caruso’s diva-like exit at the beginning of its second season — but this is the exception rather than the rule. NYPD Blue’s co-creator, the late Steven Bochco, couldn’t pull it off with Murder One, when the baleful Daniel Benzali was replaced by Anthony LaPaglia.
In the early seasons of M*A*S*H, Wayne Rogers’s character, Trapper John, was a relative counter-balance to Alan Alda’s Hawkeye. But Rogers never seriously challenged Alda for prominence, and decamped. The best buddy role was taken by Mike Farrell’s more easygoing BJ Hunnicut. Further back in time, a more extreme example was the Butch & Sundance-style Western comedy series Alias Smith & Jones, when Pete Duel (Hannibal Hayes) committed suicide and was replaced on the day of his death by the show’s narrator, Roger Davis.
According to co-producer Jo Swerling, broadcaster ABC’s reaction was, ‘“You have a contract to deliver this show to us, and you will continue to deliver the show as best you can on schedule or we will sue you.” Hearing those words, Universal didn’t hesitate for a second to instruct us to stay in production. We were already a little bit behind the eight ball on airdates. So, we contacted everybody, including Ben (Murphy), and told them to come back in. The entire company was reassembled and back in production by 1 o’clock that day shooting scenes that did not involve Peter — only 12 hours after his death.’
So why do hit shows carry on after a lead has left? As the saying goes, it’s not called show business for nothing.
It only feels like yesterday when Roseanne was elbowed from her show, so The Conners already faced an uphill struggle in terms of expectations, writing deadlines and production schedules. But the pivot the revived series was already taking to Sara Gilbert’s character Darlene may give it a fighting chance.
And if The Conners displays a more liberal bent without Roseanne, Trump supporters now have Fox’s resurrected Last Man Standing to quench their thirst for Trumpian values in comedy. In the long run, that show might be a safer bet than the ever-wayward Barr.