There’s a BIG SPOILER coming up in the next paragraph regarding The Walking Dead. If you are the person still watching this show, look away now…
Andrew Lincoln, who plays The Walking Dead’s main man, Rick Grimes, is reportedly leaving during the upcoming 9th season of the hit cult show. His departure is being seen as the likely end for the series - whether immediately, or after a few protracted years limping along like a… animated corpse… or… say… a walker.
To the uninitiated - The Walking Dead - a series about life after a zombie apocalypse - began in 2010 and quickly became one of the hottest pieces of tv merchandise especially for the key male demographic, despite “only” being a cable tv show. Focusing on former cop, Rick Grimes, and his son Carl, the show was based on, but has often diverged from a graphic novel by the same name. Although ratings have been in decline since the particularly gruesome opening to season 7, the show still averaged 7.82m viewers for AMC during its latest season - not bad for cable.
The departure of Lincoln will follow closely on from the loss of his character’s son, Carl, part way through S8, forcing even more changes from the gra-vels. There is talk that another of the shows ensemble cast, Daryl (played by Norman Reedus) will be stepping up to assume the lead. As someone who has watched the series from the beginning, I can’t personally see that working, as the show has always ultimately centred on, and often required Rick to be the guiding light.
With the example of the lower rating supernatural series, Supernatural, having now chalked up 13, going on 14 seasons, there was every reason to believe that The Walking Dead could still be on air many years from now. The gra-vels - which are still ongoing - offer plenty of storylines to for the tv writers to choose from, however the tv audience have been built around Andrew Lincoln’s performance as Rick.
Quite possibly without him, there is no solution to keep the series running long term.
The departure of a show’s main character/s would have to be the most difficult conundrum faced by television producers. Whilst a recasting of the role may have worked historically for shows like Bewitched (they had 2 Darrins?!), or even be a regular event on long-lived soap operas like Days of Our Lives, a “serious” drama would struggle to consider such a move with modern audiences who pay a lot more attention to their favourite actors as the show itself.
When Ron Howard left Happy Days, Henry Winkler’s Arthur Fonzarelli was pushed into the lime light. Considering the fact that the Fonze was never intended to play more than a bit-part in the series - and yet rapidly rose in popularity with the audience, this may have felt like a move in the right direction, however the show had always been about Richie’s journey through adolescence, and whilst the show continued for several years without him, his departure ultimately sealed its fate.
After everyone got over “Who shot J.R?!” in the 80’s, and Patrick Duffy decided to move on from Dallas, the drop in viewers ultimately lead the producers to convince the actor to revive the character of Bobby Ewing, going so far as to toss out a whole season’s worth of (aired!) stories by revealing that his death had just been a dream. This move kept the show alive for another 5 years.
Although E.R. was a ratings juggernaut for much of its first 8 years, you could mark its gradual decline in ratings by the departure of its main original cast. First George Clooney left, followed a few years later by Anthony “Nerd!” Edwards, and finally Noah Wyle. After that, the ratings slipped year after year until the end.
But what about shows where the main character actually outlives their welcome? Personally - by the time Buffy the Vampire Slayer reached around S5, my interest was much more heavily vested in everyone except Buffy. I would have been perfectly satisfied if Geller had slung her hook and been replaced by Eliza Dushku’s alternative slayer character, Faith. But, then it wouldn’t really have been Buffy the Vampire Slayer any more… Certainly when the series came to an end, it was my hope that a spin-off would continue Faith’s adventures. (Alas all we got was a couple seasons of Tru Calling and Doll House.)
8 Simple Rules (Ritter)… Spin City (Fox)… 2.5 Men (Sheen)… The X Files (Duchovny)… The list goes on, proving how hard it is for a show to lose its core character/s and manage to pick up and carry on…
… with the one exception being…
(Honest to god, I did not think this was where I was heading when I began writing!)
In 1966 William Hartnell departed Doctor Who (against his will, but for the good of the show given his failing health), having launched the show to stardom (aided by a few pepperpots). He was replaced with Patrick Troughton. Now - you could call this a recast like Bewitched, however you really just simply can’t. Unlike Bewitched, or other such recasting tv events, Patrick Troughton looked nothing like William Hartnell. He did not try to play the role like William Hartnell had played the role. He was effectively an entirely new character, if sharing the same name, and for the most part, ethics. Ratings did not decline. 3 years later the role again was handed to a new actor, and the show continued to enjoy high ratings. 5 years later; ratings saw their peak under Tom Baker. And whilst the next 3 actors resided over declining ratings and ultimately cancellation, the show remained on air for 8 more years.
Upon its revival, Doctor Who has once more handed the reigns to a new actor every few years, and whilst the ratings have dropped significantly over the past 2 seasons under Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, IMO that’s as much to do with behind the scenes (ie an over-worked showrunner, and a whole year without just 1 episode) rather than an issue with the change of actor.
I guess the moral of the story is - if your lead actor leaves, just quit whilst you’re still fondly remembered; unless their character goes by the name, the Doctor.