Can a TV show survive the loss of its leading star?
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With Gillian Anderson recently announcing that The X Files season 11 will be her last, it leaves Chris Carter and Fox with the question of whether the show can continue without one of its leading stars. The answer, it appears from initial sound bites, is no, which makes a lot of sense. The show is centred around the two iconic characters of Mulder and Scully and The X Files without both of them is unthinkable to most fans. Besides, the show attempted to move beyond the loss of David Duchovny's Mulder in season eight and nine and fans didn't take too kindly to that.
But of course, The X Files isn't the only show to lose its leading star and move on. The bigger question is not whether the show can, but whether it will continue to be successful. There is certainly debate on both sides. Looking at The X Files, many fans refused to watch after season seven finale Requiem, which was a terrible shame as season eight introduced us to the terrific Doggett (played by Robert Patrick) and gave the show one of its strongest narrative arcs. It helped of course that Duchovny wasn't completely gone, returning for 11 episodes of the 21.
Season nine however failed with Duchovny fully removed from the show (but coming back for the original finale The Truth). A lot of that was because of the show's unwillingness to let go of one of the show's two main stars and become 'the next generation' of Doggett and Reyes (Annabeth Gish). The truth is, the best episodes were those when it wasn't Mulder of Scully but so few fans were watching by this point it barely mattered.
It also depends on how big the core cast is. The various Law & Order shows survived the loss of a leading man because of the big ensemble and largely episodic nature of the show (arguably more so than The X Files). The same occurred with ER . George Clooney's Doctor Ross was for many, the main attraction, but when Hollywood came calling, the show continued because of the strong cast around him. In fact, the show lasted for many, many more years after Clooney's departure and an ever-revolving cast.
Spiritual successor Grey's Anatomy is doing the same, though it is noteable that Ellen Pompeo's Meredith Grey is still there are the current fourteenth season. Given how long she has been there, there could feasibly be a strong drop in viewers if she left, despite the regularly evolving cast around her. Crime procedurals Criminal Minds and CSI all lost their leading men and continued, the former with Mandy Patinkin Jason Gideon and the later fired Thomas Gibson as Aaron Hotchner. Criminal Minds is a show that has been consistent, backed again by a great (and in more recent years) evolving cast; the same can be said for CSI, which lost William Petersen as Gil Grissom at season nine and continued with Lawrence Fishburne and Ted Danson for another six years.
Maybe a strong ensemble is the key; whereas The X Files is ultimately Mulder and Scully's journey, these big hospital and crime dramas are more about the case of the week. The characters should be strong, but the premise of the show can survive it. It would be interesting to see if a show like Star Trek could survive the same. Some characters came and left but the captain always stayed; Star Trek: The Next Generation could have lost Patrick Stewart's Jean Luc Picard after season three's terrific Borg cliff-hanger and while I am glad he stayed, would the show have been as good and successful without him?
Babylon 5 managed the switch of leading commander from Michael O'Hare's Jeffrey Sinclair to Bruce Boxleitner's more charismatic Captain John Sheridan. But interestingly, fans were less forgiving of the loss of second in command Susan Ivanova (Claudia Christian) when she was replaced by Tracy Scoggins's Captain Elizabeth Lochley in the final season. Of course, the core story was mostly wrapped up by that point too. Then there is fellow 90's sci-fi series Sliders, a show that lost its core characters one by one; we all mourned the loss John Rhys-Davies' Professor Maximilian Arturo in the third season, by when the show replaced series star Quinn Mallory (Jerry O'Connell) after the fourth, everyone stopped watching and the show died a death a year later.
The core premise, it seems, is key to whether a show survive the loss of a main star. It's the reason crime and hospital procedurals can survive; but when the premise is about a character's journey, it's hard to keep going when those characters have gone. The X Files began with Mulder's search for the truth and without him, that core passion was gone. Sliders was about the core cast of characters trying to find their way home; when three of the four were dead or lost, the premise changed irrevocably.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer could never have carried on in its true form after Sarah Michelle Gellar announced season seven would be her last and it was right (as sad as it was) to end there. Supernatural is still going because series leads Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles still love making the show. Gilmore Girls will always be about Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel's mother / daughter relationship. Luther or Sherlock will only continue when the main stars are able to commit to making more episodes. If Idris Elba, Martin Freeman or Benedict Cumberbatch decide they are done, these shows (certainly this incarnation of Sherlock Holmes) will be done with them.
It also depends on how creative you are. Doctor Who is the prime example of a show that can lose its main star (and core supporting characters in the companions) every few years. The First Doctor regenerating into the second was a life saver for the show. As soon as the main star decides to leave, just recast them and it works. It helps of course that the character still is the Doctor. Male or female, young or old, the lead might have a different face or personality, but they they are still the same Time Lord travelling around in space and time in their TARDIS.
It also depends on who the star is. The West Wing was originally designed to be centred around Rob Lowe's Sam Seaborn but characters like Allison Janney's CJ Cregg and Martin Sheen's President Jed Bartlett soon stole the show and so by the time Lowe left in season four and was replaced by Joshua Malina's Will Bailey, the series continued on just fine without him.
The truth is, shows are rarely as good (or certainly perceived as good) when the main star leaves, unless there is a strong ensemble around them like CSI or The West Wing or ER. Doctor Who is a creative exception, but back in the 60s it was a daring risk that could have ended the show for good if audiences hadn't accepted the second incarnation.
Would a series be as bold today? In this day and age where hundreds of shows are available on streaming sites at the drop of a hat, where there are numerous channels to view from and ratings are more important than ever, it is more likely that a show would die with its main star. But it can also lead to creative resurges like Doctor Who and The X Files' eighth season. It's a risk that few will be likely to take...