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A Taxonomy of TV Shows Replacing Their Leads

Batwoman's Ruby Rose is one in a long line of stars who walked away.
  • The show went on without them: Steve Carell, Roseanne Barr, Suzanne Somers and David Caruso. (Photos: NBC, ABC)
    The show went on without them: Steve Carell, Roseanne Barr, Suzanne Somers and David Caruso. (Photos: NBC, ABC)

    The CW's Batwoman returns for its second season this Sunday, but it will be without the titular Batwoman of its first season. Australian actress Ruby Rose, who had previously appeared on Orange Is the New Black, and made headlines for being an openly queer lead on a network TV show, announced her departure from the series back in May. There were reports that Rose had a hard time adjusting to the massive time commitment and long hours required of a series lead, she also referenced her struggles with mental health when she discussed her split from the show on Instagram.

    In July, it was announced that God Friended Me star Javica Leslie would replace Rose as the star of Batwoman. Leslie — a groundbreaking choice herself as a bisexual Black woman — won't replace Rose in the role of Kate Kane, but will instead play a different character, Ryan Wilder, who will adopt the Batwoman moniker.

    The casting situation at Batwoman has stoked a good bit of drama ahead of the show's sophomore season premiere, but this is far from the first time a TV series has replaced its lead performer in the middle of its run. It's not common, but TV shows are meant to be ongoing, and keeping them running means keeping up with the cast's changing circumstances, including contract negotiations, other career opportunities, scandals, tragedies, or just simple fatigue. While cast turnover is a constant on long-running ensemble shows — shows like Grey's Anatomy, ER, and Law & Order cycled through their ensemble casts many times over — it's still notable when a show's star performer leaves abruptly. How the show deals with that departure often dictates whether or not it will survive the shake-up.

    With that in mind, we've broke down some of the most notable lead-performer departures in TV history and grouped them by type:

    Contract Disputes

    This should be prefaced by saying that some level of contract dispute probably exists in 90% of the instances in which a performer leaves their show. Sometimes, however, that's the primary and only reason. One of the most famous examples of this was when Valerie Harper — the beloved TV star of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda — got into a dispute with the producers at the end of the second season of her late-'80s NBC sitcom Valerie. Things went bad, Harper left the show, and suddenly NBC was left with a series called "Valerie," which... had no Valerie. The solution, famously, was to kill off the Valerie character offscreen between seasons, then have Season 3 begin with Sandy Duncan stepping in as the family's aunt, helping them get through their grief and, in short order, return to the business of being a network family sitcom. The show was re-christened Valerie's Family for Season 3 and finally The Hogan Family for its final three years.

    Another famous contract dispute that led to a casting shakeup was on the ABC sitcom Three's Company. After Suzanne Somers became a breakout star for playing the ditzy Chrissy Snow, she tried to renegotiate her salary to be on par with that of her co-star John Ritter. When the producers balked, the fifth season of the show went on without Chrissy full-time, instead making the infamous decision to have her leave town and call in to her on-screen roommates at the very end of each episode. By the end of the season, Somers was let go and replaced by actress Jennilee Harrison, who played Chrissy's cousin Cindy.

    Greener Pastures

    Often when a TV show hits it big right out of the gate, its stars become massively famous and hugely castable, seemingly overnight. Suddenly, the idea of being shackled to an ongoing TV series starts to seem less and less attractive. And so the stars bolt the show in the hopes of finding bigger career success elsewhere. The prime example of this was David Caruso after the first season of ABC's NYPD Blue, the gritty, boundary-pushing cop show that was an immediate sensation. And while Dennis Franz was the show's Emmy-winning critical fave, Caruso was the one who figured he could springboard from the show's success into film, and so (after, yes, a contract dispute), Caruso left the show four episodes into its second season. His movie-star vehicles like Kiss of Death and Jade flopped, and before too long, he was back on TV, dramatically removing his sunglasses on CSI: Miami. NYPD Blue cast Jimmy Smits (formerly of creator Stephen Bochco's L.A. Law) as a new cop to partner with Franz, and the show stayed as popular as ever.

    Farrah Fawcett left Charlie's Angels after just one season, having become one of the world's most famous actresses in the process, and was replaced in Season 2 by Cheryl Ladd. Shelley Long left Cheers at the end of five seasons to star in movies like Troop Beverly Hills; she was replaced by Kirstie Alley for the remainder of the series' run.

    This even happens in the reality TV arena, like when American Idol's Simon Cowell left the show that he'd pretty much defined since its inception in order to make the American version of The X Factor. In that case, Idol had a terrible time trying to fill his seat, opting for superstar replacements like Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, and Nicki Minaj.

    That's Enough

    One of the most common reasons for a show's star to exit is that the series has been running for ages but remains too big a hit for the network to cancel, so it's time to move on. In these instances, the show continues for a few years as a kind of zombie version of itself before finally, usually quietly, ending. We saw this most recently (though we haven't gotten to the ending quite yet) with Emmy Rossum exiting Showtime's Shameless and Andrew Lincoln helicoptering his way out of The Walking Dead. In both cases, the ensembles around them were robust enough that the show decided to carry on without them. Same with Chris Meloni on Law & Order: SVU, though he's returning to the role of Elliot Stabler this year.

    Connie Britton hopped off Nashville when it ended its run on ABC and relocated to CMT, leaving the show to be headlined by her on-screen rival Hayden Panettiere. Topher Grace and Ashton Kutcher left That '70s Show in its eighth and final season due to their, let's say, varying degrees of opportunities in Hollywood. In addition to relying more on the other characters, the series also added a new guy, played by Josh "brother of Seth" Meyers.

    Of course, perhaps the most notable of these instances was Steve Carell exiting The Office after seven seasons. Despite landing such major actors as James Spader, Idris Elba, Kathy Bates, and Catherine Tate, the Michael Scott magic was never quite recaptured.

    Not Your Show Anymore

    Sometimes one or more of the above can be true, only it's not a super big deal for the show because it's already evolved beyond the character who's exiting. Oddly, the two best examples for this are both Allison Janney shows. The West Wing was originally meant to be far more of a vehicle for Rob Lowe than it eventually became; by the time he left midway through Season 4, the show was a full ensemble. Mom, on the other hand, started out as a dual lead sitcom with Anna Faris and Allison Janney playing daughter and mother, respectively. But as the years went on, and the show shifted in scope to become more about Janney's character and the recovery group, Faris became less and less essential, and this season now sees Faris having moved on, with Janney as the sole lead.

    Illness/Death

    These are obviously very sad to remember. Phil Hartman's death between Seasons 4 and 5 of Newsradio was obviously unexpected, but the show carried on, with Hartman's Saturday Night Live co-star Jon Lovitz stepping into the cast to play Bill McNeal's replacement. John Ritter's sudden death at the beginning of 8 Simple Rules's second season caused the show to stop production and figure out its future. After the show resumed, Ritter's character's death was written into the show, and actors James Garner and David Spade were cast to play family members. On Spin City, when Michael J. Fox's Parkinson's Disease led him to leave the show, the producers replaced his character with a new guy, played by Charlie Sheen.

    Scandals

    It has been a not uncommon occurrence on television for a lead performer to need to be written out of the show due to a scandal. The aforementioned Charlie Sheen got killed off of Two and a Half Men after a dispute with production and a subsequent meltdown in the press. The show then brought in Ashton Kutcher to lead the series through its final seasons. Kevin Spacey's alleged sexual misconduct led to him being written out of the final season of House of Cards, with Robin Wright's First Lady becoming the focal point going forward. And of course, there was Roseanne Barr, whose racist tweets led to her removal from the show with her name on it, Roseanne. In a (probably unintentional) nod to Valerie Harper's old show, the former Roseanne was re-christened The Connors.

    Lights Out

    Finally, sometimes a performer is so central to a show's success that when they decide to leave, the show decides to close up shop rather than go on without them. This was the case when Sarah Michelle Gellar decided the seventh season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer would be her last. Rather than carry on as "The Vampire Slayer Family," the supernatural drama ended on its own terms. More recently, Jim Parsons' decision to end his time as Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory proved reason enough for the show to end after its 12th season, although CBS and Parsons have managed to keep the Sheldon Television Universe going with Young Sheldon.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Batwoman, The CW, 8 Simple Rules, American Idol, The Big Bang Theory, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charlie's Angels, The Conners, House of Cards, Mom, Nashville, NewsRadio, NYPD Blue, The Office (US), Roseanne, Shameless, Spin City, That '70s Show, Three's Company, Two and a Half Men, Valerie/The Hogan Family, The Walking Dead, The West Wing, Allison Janney, Anna Faris, Ashton Kutcher, Charlie Sheen, Cheryl Ladd, Connie Britton, Emmy Rossum, Farrah Fawcett, Javicia Leslie, Jennilee Harrison, Jimmy Smits, Jim Parsons, John Ritter, Jon Lovitz, Josh Meyers, Kevin Spacey, Kirstie Alley, Michael J. Fox, Phil Hartman, Rob Lowe, Roseanne Barr, Ruby Rose, Sandy Duncan, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Shelley Long, Simon Cowell, Steve Carell, Suzanne Somers, Topher Grace, Valerie Harper