It’s not as if characters never leave television shows. Diane and Fraiser both left Cheers, the former for California, the latter for a spinoff. Dr. Addison Montgomery departed Seattle Grace for the bright lights and beaches of Los Angeles. Detective John Munch has transcended franchises, moving from Homicide to Law & Order and popping up everywhere from Arrested Development to the X-Files. But it seems to me we’re entering a period where scripted television feels unusually confident about replacing characters or even entire casts.
The most high-profile case may not have been voluntary or planned: CBS subbed in Ashton Kutcher for Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men, ending the latter character’s run on the show with a fast and not particularly deep workaround. But it came at a time when lots of television shows were deciding that setting and concept were more important than individual characters. The Office saw the departure of Michael Scott, and if the show has seemed creatively moribund since his last episode, its problems really began once Jim and Pam got together. The core cast of the show may change further if Mindy Kaling’s show gets a pickup at Fox, ending her run on NBC as Kelly Kapoor. While it may not be totally clear what’s happening with Glee next year, some of the cast seems likely to depart, whether for a spinoff, or for other projects as graduation approaches for some of the kids at McKinley High. American Horror Story was specifically designed, even if we didn’t know it at the beginning, to replace almost the entire cast every season. And while a new show the CW has ordered may end up following its main character over multiple seasons, its combat-in-the-arena storyline sounds like it could accomodate a whole new cast every season, if need be.
I’d imagine that some of this is driven by the success of reality television on two fronts. Audiences have clearly become comfortable with swapping out contestants and Housewives as long as their replacements continue to fill the same tropes as their predecessors, and in shows like Glee where the characters are more schtick than actual people, and where the structure demands turnover, it probably wouldn’t been too wrenching for audiences to see actors phased in and out. Making sure actors on scripted shows know they’re replaceable also serves another function: it makes the actors who really need the work less powerful in contract negotiations if they know the show is comfortable replacing them at any point. And phasing characters in and out makes it easier for big stars to commit to television shows without worrying about waking up fourteen years later and having everyone forget that they used to compete for Academy Awards. It might have seemed inexplicable that Connie Britton would sign up for a three-year run of eating brains and having ghost-sex, but as a season-long reset button that lets her remind people she’s something other than Mrs. Coach, it makes more sense.
What does it mean in terms of storytelling? I think that’s yet to be seen. While rotating casts do make most actors less critical in favor of setting, atmosphere, and the internal rules of the world that will govern all characters’ behavior, a few anchor characters will still be important. What bodes poorly for Glee and well for American Horror Story, to take the two rotating-cast-shows from the same creator, is that Glee’s tentpole is the increasingly unlikable and not particularly rational staff, led by Will Schuster, while Jessica Lange still has scenery to chomp as creepy Murder House neighbor Constance in American Horror Story. And the concepts have to be good: both Glee and American Horror Story, while neither show is my cup of tea, have concepts that provide procedural-like structures. Every week, songs will be sung or people will die horribly, and folks will turn in to hear those songs and watch those killings. All of which probably lends itself to a focus on episodic, rather than serialized, shows. It’s difficult for me to believe that anyone is tuning in to Glee because they’re deeply invested in and attentive to the coherence of Rachel Berry’s journey any more.
Does that mean we’re going to enter a period of sloppy storytelling? I hope not. Episodic doesn’t have to mean inconsistent. And moving characters along can give a show an emotional integrity it might not have otherwise. But if characters are going to move in and out of shows, the main motivation shouldn’t be to break the power of actors, but to tell specific kinds of stories.