For the most part comedy series keep their main characters throughout the whole series. There are times in a series where people have left comedies: Shelley Long left Cheers, Valeria Harper and Cloris Leachman left The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Ron Howard left Happy Days, M*A*S*H had a bunch of cast members leave including Gary Burghoof, and McLean Stevenson. These are not the only folks to leave television comedies at the height of their fame, but these are some of the most memorable.
Over the past few few weeks I have been re-watching The Office (USA). The show centered around Michael Scott who works as a manager at Dunder Mifflin, a paper company, and the people he supervises. Throughout the years the show became a true ensemble piece focusing not only on Michael, but Jim and Pam, and their love affair, Dwight and his quirky beet farm, Stanley's cranky attitude, Meredith the drunk, Angela the uptight accountant, Oscar the gay guy, and many more. While a show can be a great ensemble there are certain characters/actors who are the glue which hold a show together. Michael Scott is one of those characters, and saying goodbye to his character this week (again) was another painful experience.
Before I relive my pain of losing Steve Carell's Michael Scott, let's look at some of the names above, and examine why those actors leave the show, and how their absence affected their perspective series.
Shelley Long left Cheers for a couple of reasons; she wanted to explore her film career, and based on listening to behind the scenes talk she was mistreated by the cast because of her attitude. Long acted like Diane off the set, as much she did while on camera. Diane was a central part of the show; she added the conflict, she was the opposite of all the other characters the refined woman working in the bar. Diane also added that extra heat with her on and off again relationship with Sam. The Sam and Diane would they won't they was the talk of everyone, it was "water cooler gossip."
Kelsey Grammer helped ease the transition of a Diane-less Cheers, and the show survived and did quite nicely after she left. While Diane may have been the center of the show, she certainly was not missed (viewership remained strong). Long's career took a massive nose dive, and while she gets somewhat small guest work these days (Modern Family) she has not had a steady on screen career since she left the show.
Gary Burghoof, and McLean Stevenson from M*A*S*H had the same career fate as Long, but M*A*S*H lasted much longer after Stevenson left and a year or two after Burghoof. These characters were important to shows ensemble, but the shows lived on while their careers faded. Sometimes celebrities think they can do more, but often the reason they are popular is because the of the show itself rather than the star, or even the character.
Some characters may have left their incredibly popular show to go and star in their own series, with the character of the same name. Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman both left The Mary Tyler Moore Show in order to provide more context for their character. Harper's show Rhoda was a big hit, and won the actress an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her role. While after this series she was known for diva demands, and booted off the show Hogan Family (they killed her off), the actress had a lot of success.While Cloris Leachman never won an Emmy for her show Phyllis; she is now one of the actors to win the most Primetime Emmy Awards and stars in the hit sitcom Raising Hope.
The situation with Harper and Leachman is a rare occasion, but the reason their parent show remained successful was because Mary still had her workplace, and both Rhoda and Phyllis were part of her outside world. The creative minds behind Moore's show were brilliant, they created one of the most well balanced television sitcoms of all time.
Let's jump back into the modern example, of Carell leaving The Office. I personally applaud Carell for leaving this show, while he was on top and the show was reaching its creative downturn. Throughout his last season the show did a wonderful job wrapping up his stories with his co-workers, with him outsmarting Oscar, outgrowing Todd Packer, and finally getting the girl, Holly. Michael's goodbye episode was one of the saddest sitcom episodes ever, and losing him was like losing your most valuable player.
The Office attempted to build excitement with Will Ferrell as a potential boss, but this was temporary, and failed on all levels. Then they paraded a variety of potential celebrity managers from Jim Carrey to Ray Romano, and eventually ended up with James Spader, who eventually became the CEO, and was replaced by Andy Bernard (Ed Helms). While Helm's Andy should have been the original choice the show wasted time with outsiders.
After Carell left show the show has gone on to last two more seasons (this being the second and last). While the show has lasted two more years fans have seemed to abandon ship. I gave the show a shot, and have watched episodes here and there, but the show just has never felt the same without Michael. While the ensemble is still funny, the show should ended two seasons ago, and let go of the thought that they could continue on without their fearless leader in Dunder Mifflin.
With the show ending this year I have grown nostalgic, and for the first time navigate the open waters of a show with Steve Carell all of the way through for the first time. I am not looking forward this experience, and I will back peddle if I was wrong. The moral of the story is that shows need to know when its time to say goodbye, rather than allowing actors to leave. The Mary Tyler Moore Show is one example of this working well, but even the show runners and actors knew that after seven great seasons it was time to throw in the towel, and end on top.