Getting attached to characters in shows like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead is a risk, because those series kill off major players like it's their job. But on most other shows, it's surprising and strange when the staff writes off a character that was integral to the narrative. Sometimes actors decided they'd had enough of whatever irked them on set, and asked to be put out of their misery; at other times it was the executives who wanted to try something new.
Many of these shows soldiered on without popular characters with mixed results. Sometimes the show changed networks entirely; sometimes they squandered all the good will they had built up over the seasons in just a handful of episodes. Of course, there are cases where the series only improved after the departure of a central star.
Some of the biggest comedies and dramas of all time went through a startling departure, from ER and The X-Files to The Office and Cheers. Imagine the episodes that might have been.
The American version of The Office was a huge hit for NBC. Over nine seasons, the mockumentary-style show followed the daily life of the employees of the Dunder Mifflin paper company. It was a true ensemble, but the heart of the sitcom was definitely Regional Manager Michael Scott (Steve Carell).
Carell left The Office after Season 7, and it nearly killed the show. They gave Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) the manager's job, but immediately lost track of what made him unique. New characters were non-starters, and the writing devolved into zany gags and absurd caricatures. By the time The Office limped to its finale, even diehard fans were glad to see it go.
Two and a Half Men ran for an incredible 12 seasons on CBS. It followed single dad Alan (Jon Cryer) and his boozehound bachelor brother Charlie (Charlie Sheen), along with Alan's son Jake (Angus T. Jones). The show was very successful, thanks in large part to the odd-couple comedy of Alan and Charlie – until Sheen decided to go on an insane rant about his boss Chuck Lorre.
That was the end of the fictional Charlie. The writers unceremoniously killed off his character (his body exploded like a balloon full of meat), and the show added Ashton Kutcher as Internet tycoon Walden Schmidt to fill the void. Two and a Half Men continued on for another three seasons. When the series finally wrapped, a body double was brought on to replace Sheen, and a piano was dropped on his head.
When Nina Dobrev announced her departure from The Vampire Diaries after the sixth season, writers likely realized the problems this situation posed. How do you continue a show where one of the lead actors plays not one, not two, but three different yet instrumental characters? The answer, based on the show's eventual trajectory, looks like a "no." The Vampire Diaries only managed to eke out two more seasons before reaching its demise, returned to a coffin it would never rise from.
Given the show fell into the supernatural thriller genre, The Vampire Diaries had a number of chances to possibly spin this departure in a way that suited their needs. But instead of giving people what they want (immortal, unapologetic bloodsuckers) the writers instead give Elena the cure to vampirism, thereby ruining the morbid allure that even Stephanie Meyer was keen enough to keep in her fan fiction novels. This results in two more seasons of confusing and weak plot threads, eventually concluding with Damon and Elena living and dying as regular humans. Bor-ring!
Happy Days, the 1970s comedy set in the 1950s, ran for 11 seasons on ABC. It followed the adventure of Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) and best friend Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli (Henry Winkler). The duo and their friends hung out al Al's Diner, hatching wholesome schemes and getting into mischief. The show was originally centered around Richie, but Fonzie slowly took over the leading role and Winkler ultimately got top billing alongside Howard in the opening credits.
Howard left the show after Season 7 to pursue his interest in directing, and that ended up being a pretty good call. The show added a few new significant characters along the way like Chachi (Scott Baio) and Roger Phillips (Ted McGinley), and ran for another 4 seasons. The tone of the humor significantly changed and storylines went way off the rails after Howard left (Mork, anyone?), but people continued to watch the show.