Can a TV show survive the loss of its leading star?
With Ruby Rose announcing that she is leaving Batwoman after just one season, to be replaced by Javicia Leslie as new character Ryan Wilder, the question is how the show will survive the loss of its central character. While comics afeature multiple characters adopting the mantle of famous superheroes, Batwoman has always been Kate Kane, cousin of Bruce Wayne. Furthermore, this isn't a change six or seven seasons into a show; this is a complete change of lead character after just one season. The show has barely had time to embed, with Kate Kane only just establishing herself in the Arrowverse.
Perhaps more than any other Arrowverse show, Batwoman's greatest strength is her connection to her family. As the cousin of Bruce Wayne, there is a familial connection to the Dark Knight. Primary villain Alice is Kate's sister, making for a deeply personal connection. If Batwoman was to loose Rachel Skarsten as Alice, it would loose its greatest asset (sorry Ruby Rose) - Alice makes Batwoman, thanks to a terrific performance from Skarsten and the connection to Kate. Even supporting characters like Sophie, Mary and Jacob, are intrisinctly linked to Kate in a deeply personal way. The recent Crisis on Infinite Earths also established connections to other heroes that would be hard to replicate with Batwoman Mark II. Kate Kane was one of the paragons that helped saved the universe. Without her, does that effect wider Arrowverse storylines? What about the connection to Kara Danvers / Supergirl that was established in that event? Is that now all thrown out of the window?
Of course, Ruby Rose's reasons for leaving are her own and we should respect that. Personally, I find her one of the weakest elements of the show and feel Batwoman is missing a charismatic lead that joins the ranks of Melissa Benoist's Kara Danvers / Supergirl and Grant Gustin's Barry Allen / The Flash. Hopefully Javicia Leslie will fill that void. But there is no denying that all the groundwork from season one - which certainly took a while to find its feet - is at risk of being undone by the sudden change of the lead character, particularly if Rose is presumably not returning for the season two opener to send her character off (showrunner Caroline Dries has already explicitly stated that Kate Kane will not be killed off).
But will Batwoman survive the loss of its leading star? Perhaps the fact that the change is happening so early in (presumably) the show's multi-season run may be a blessing, allowing new audiences to tune in and the show to establish a new world centred around Javicia Leslie's Ryan Wilder, particularly as Dries has stated that Wilder will also be a lesbian and continue the LGBT themes the show tackles regularly.
There is also plenty of precedents for TV shows changing its leads and surviving, some more successful than others. The X Files certainly falls largely into the latter camp. When Gillian Anderson announced that The X Files season 11 would be her last shortly before its debut in early 2018, it left Chris Carter and Fox with the question of whether the show could continue without one of its leading stars. The answer, it appeared, was no, which made a lot of sense. The show was 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 stars 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 notable that Ellen Pompeo's Meredith Grey is still there ahead of the show's upcoming seventeenth 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's Jason Gideon and the later fired Thomas Gibson as Aaron Hotchner. Criminal Minds was a show that was 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. Criminal Minds lasted twelve seasons after Patinkin, four after Gibson.
Maybe a strong ensemble is the key; whereas The X Files was 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 kept going because series leads Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles still loved making the show, only now coming to an end after a momentous fifteen seasons. 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. At the moment, both shows are looking at long hiatuses, but the actors love playing these characters and if schedules work, they could perceivably return for more episodes.
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.
Another factor is in determining the actual star, rather than the perceived one. 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 without 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.
Batwoman then, could have a chance, because it is willing not just to recast Kate Kane and carry on as normal, but completely replace its leading star. The core premise of Batwoman saving Gotham City will remain, even if there is a new hero under the mantle. There is already an inbuilt supporting cast, not to mention the real star in Rachel Skarsten's Alice. With almost every character intrinsically linked to Kate Kane, showrunner Caroline Dries has a mighty challenge but a great opportunity if she gets it right. Batwoman might be the exception rather than the rule...