It’s a story we know all too well.
A television show is a few seasons in, characters and relationships have been deeply developed, and then, all of a sudden, the main character disappears from our screens. Whether it’s for creative reasons or the actor/actress simply wanted to try something new, many great televisions shows have been faced with this conundrum.
In an instant, the entire trajectory of a series is in jeopardy.
Obviously, there are shows out there that literally could not move on without the main character. I mean, can you imagine Buffy the Vampire Slayer without Buffy? No. Which is why when Buffy died at the end of season five, no one actually thought it would stick. But a series doesn’t have to be named after a character to imply their significance to the show.
Take, for instance, Nina Dobrev in The Vampire Diaries. She was undoubtedly one of the leads and so when she decided to leave the series after six seasons, it was a huge blow. How could The Vampire Diaries possibly continue without Elena Gilbert, who was basically the bridge between all the characters? Many shows, like The Vampire Diaries, try to move on after main character departures, but it often leaves a giant hole for the rest of the series. It begs the question, is it possible for a show to recover after such a loss?
Quality Over Quantity
I’m a big advocate of ending shows before it gets out of hand. (Shouldn’t everyone?) Grey’s Anatomy, for example, is a show that should have ended years ago. Honestly, they should have hung up their scrubs when Sandra Oh left. Grey’s Anatomy is a classic case of what happens when a television show lasts way too long, with The Walking Dead coming in at a close second. The show has been on the air for an impressive 15 seasons. A major accomplishment for any network drama, especially since the show still continues to be a powerhouse for ABC.
However, what comes with any show’s longevity is the continual downfall of what once made it great. It’s the characters and their stories which built Grey’s Anatomy to be the success that it is. No matter what was going on in the world, everyone had to tune in to find out if Derek and Meredith would finally get back together. But as the show went on, a trend started to follow. It seemed like as every new season passed, one notable cast member was bowing out.
T.R. Knight and Katherine Heigl exited the series, followed by a two-for-one heartbreaking exit of Chyler Leigh and Eric Dane a couple of seasons later. Not much time passed before Sandra Oh announced her departure and Patrick Dempsey surprised us all by choosing to leave the series. Yet, despite the fact that Grey’s Anatomy has lost most of the original characters that helped create this hit show, it still has a passionate fan base and is one of ABC’s most-watched dramas.
Quit While You’re Ahead
If Grey’s Anatomy can last for over a decade while continuing to lose integral characters then any show can, right? Not so fast. What sets the medical drama apart is that it is a big ensemble show – meaning if one character leaves, they can just shift focus on another one of their billion characters.
Other shows aren’t as lucky. Let’s go back to The Vampire Diaries. For six seasons, the journey of Elena Gilbert was explored. From her innocent unknowing of the supernatural world to her romances with the Salvatore brothers, to the reality of succumbing to her worst fear of becoming a vampire. But at the end of the sixth season, Nina Dobrev decided it was time for her to leave the show. That, of course, put the show in an impossible situation. They could end the show right then and there or they could try to figure out a way to move the show forward without the female lead. The powers that be opted for the latter and thanks to some creative thinking, they found a way to have the show progress without her.
With the decision to keep going, The Vampire Diaries sort of became Supernatural 2.0 as they focused more on the Salvatore brothers. It was the cards they were dealt with, but in my opinion, it’s something they should have gone against. The point of the final two seasons is beyond me. They not only killed off Tyler Lockwood but also made Bonnie finally find happiness only for it to be taken away (again) – all of which to prolong a show that could have just ended. I’m sure there are people who enjoyed the final two seasons, and for all we know, the same thing could have happened with Elena Gilbert in the mix.
We will never know. All we do know is that the show drastically changed because of her departure. But hey, at least they didn’t kill her off in which case we wouldn’t have had the epic series finale we were given.
Here’s the thing: characters die and people move on. A television show tells a story, and often, it is necessary for the characters to move on. Look at Lost. Known for their big character deaths, I can’t think of one death in the show that didn’t help the overall story-line. Sure, Charlie Pace’s death was heart-wrenching but it made sense at the time and, ultimately, helped move the story along.
Lost, however, is a show where death is expected. Boone’s death at the end of the first season showed us that not everyone is safe. Also, because it was an element of the show, their deaths never detracted from the overall story. When a death is unexpected for both the fans and the show, that’s when a problem arises.
Just recently, a beloved character of The Magicians met a surprising demise. While I thought someone was going to die in the finale, I never would have imagined it would be Quentin Coldwater. He was the heart and soul of The Magicians since the beginning. Imaging a show without him is practically impossible. Without going too much in how the show exactly handled it, it seemed link Jason Ralph (who plays Quentin) wanted to leave the show. For whatever reason, the writers decided to end his story-line with a death (problematic for a boatload of reasons but that’s a story for another day). Regardless, the fifth season of The Magicians is now entering unknown waters.
Of course, a show that’s only had four seasons and has been great so far wouldn’t want to end after one person decides to leave the show. But when a show is so dependent on a character such as The Magicians is with Quentin and they leave, it kind of makes you begin to doubt things.
Take Me Back To The Start
I’m not saying that every show should end just because the main character leaves. But I will go out on a leap to say that no show is ever as good as it was beforehand. When Josh Charles left The Good Wife, it felt like the next couple seasons were just going back and forth on trying to find his replacement which was distracting at best. Will Gardner’s relationship with Alicia was one of the greatest parts of the show and in one episode, it was all gone. In The Office, the seasons after Steve Carrell left were good but it never was the same. And don’t even get me started on The X Files without Fox Mulder.
You cannot possibly tell me that the current seasons of Grey’s Anatomy are better than the first ten, that The Vampire Diaries was better off without Nina Dobrev, or convince the cynic in me that The Magicians will ever be as great as it is now. Maybe I just hate change. Maybe I just get too attached to characters that I can’t begin to fathom a show without them. Or maybe I am just screaming into the void when in fact, The Office post-Michael was actually better.
You tell me, are there any television shows you watch that actually became stronger after the departure of a significant character? Let us know in the comments below!
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I watch way too much TV, but I can't help it. What can I say -- I have a weak spot for some well-written fictional characters. When I'm not watching or writing about TV, I work at a public relations agency in Chicago.