Roseanne returns again tonight, only it’s called The Conners, and Roseanne’s not in it, because she got fired for a racist tweet. (Considering her established history of unhinged tweets, she probably never should’ve been brought back in the first place.) None of this is normal.
It’s one of the strangest histories of any TV show. Originally a smash hit in the late ‘80s, Roseanne stayed strong into the ‘90s before gradually petering out before the end of that decade. Then it returned as a bigger success than anybody thought possible 20 years later, before its namesake star was fired after only one season back. It’s a testament to Roseanne’s deep supporting cast that ABC would even consider keeping the show on without its lead, but that’s how good John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf and Sara Gilbert are.
As weird as this is, it’s not unheard of for a sitcom to keep running after losing a main character. Between contract disputes, creative differences, and even death, a number of shows have lost their stars but continued on. Some were successes, while others saw their ratings dwindle, but all decided to plow on without a central character and top-billed actor, for however long it may have lasted. Here are a few other sitcoms that found themselves in situations similar to The Conners.
This is the closest analogue to the Roseanne situation, and the one most referenced when rumors of The Conners first started to circulate. Valerie was a family sitcom based around Valerie Harper, the popular star of Rhoda and sidekick on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It was a relatively paint-by-numbers ‘80s family sitcom during its first season, but Harper and her husband / fellow producer Tony Cacciotti steered it in a more realistic direction in its second season. Between their increased creative roles and the show’s improved ratings, they tried to negotiate new, more lucrative contracts with NBC and the show’s production companies, but Hogan was eventually fired before the third season started, with her character being killed in an off-camera car wreck. The show was renamed Valerie’s Family: The Hogans, and eventually The Hogan Family, with Sandy Duncan joining the cast as Valerie’s sister-in-law. Between the firing of a titular character, and the renaming of the show after the family of the now-dead character, this was basically a road map for how ABC treated the Roseanne situation.
Freddie Prinze was only 22 when he committed suicide in 1977, just hours after taping his last episode of Chico and the Man. A smash during its first season, Prinze’s show had dropped out of the top 30 during the third season, and he suffered from depression and drug use and was going through a divorce at the time of his death. With three episodes left to go in that third season, Chico and the Man explained its lead character’s absence by saying he was in Mexico. The fourth season introduced a new, younger replacement for Chico, as Jack Albertson’s character adopted a 12-year-old Mexican orphan. Ratings plummeted without Prinze, and the fourth season was eventually pulled from the schedule before burning off most of its remaining episodes the following summer.
Lisa Bonet left The Cosby Show in 1987 for the spinoff A Different World, which relocated her character Denise Huxtable to the fictional historically black college Hillman. It was effectively an ensemble show from the start, but Bonet, as a recognizable star from the most popular show on TV, was the clear focus. When Bonet became pregnant with Zoe Kravitz in 1988, Bill Cosby was adamant that Denise Huxtable would never have a child while in college, so Bonet was written out of the show during a larger revamp between the first and second seasons. Secondary characters Dwayne Wayne and Whitley Gilbert (played by Kadeem Hardison and Jasmine Guy, respectively) became the new core of the show, which focused on the black college experience for five more seasons. Although still set in the extended Cosby universe, A Different World was able to grow into its own unique identity without a Huxtable around every week.
A show with an ensemble as strong as The Office’s should have been able to plug away with or without its original star. Steve Carell was so good as Michael Scott though—able to move effortlessly from cringeworthy embarrassment to heartbreaking sadness—that his absence cast a permanent cloud over the show’s last two seasons. They weren’t quite the outright disasters many people say they were—there’s still some good comedy there, and some of the background characters were allowed to grow more after Scott left—but seasons eight and nine are a far reach from the show’s peak, with their most visible misstep being an attempt to force Ed Helms’s character Andy into Scott’s old role within the office.
Cheers established the template for most subsequent romantic sitcoms with the “will they or won’t they” tension between Ted Danson’s Sam Malone and Shelley Long’s Diane Chambers. It was no surprise that they definitely would, in the end, but it was shocking when Long left the show after its fifth season, when it was the third-highest rated show in America. In the long run it was probably the best thing that could’ve happened to Cheers: instead of dragging that original core relationship out too long, the show was able to refresh itself with a new female lead, Kristie Alley, and grow better and more popular over its six final seasons.
Spin City launched in 1996 as a vehicle for Michael J. Fox, who was returning to a regular TV series for the first time since Family Ties ended in 1989. Fox was the unquestioned star of the show, which was set in the Mayor’s office in New York. It was a solid, if unexceptional, hit for ABC during its first few years. Before its fourth season Fox announced that he had Parkinson’s disease, and Heather Locklear was added as a co-lead to ease up on his schedule. Fox left entirely after that season, with Charlie Sheen coming on board as Locklear’s new male co-star. By that point ratings had tanked alongside the entire ABC network, and over its last two seasons the former top 30 show barely cracked the top 60.
Sheen found himself on the other side of this divide in 2011, when he was fired from Two and a Half Men, which had been a regular top 20 hit for CBS since 2003 despite a rancid reception from critics. Sheen, of course, went completely off the rails around this time, ruining his personal and professional reputation and threatening to pull the show down with him. Instead his character was killed off-screen and replaced by Ashton Kutcher as a new co-lead with Jon Cryer. The show somehow lasted another four seasons after Sheen’s departure, and actually had its highest season-long ranking in the Nielsens under Kutcher. Sheen’s character, meanwhile, returned from the dead in the series finale, only to be killed again by a falling piano; Sheen himself did not return to play him.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.