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.
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That '70s Show ran on Fox for eight seasons, focusing on the lives of a group of high school friends in the 1970s. The cast was impressive, featuring Topher Grace, Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis, Laura Prepon, and more. The show started out covering important social topics of the 1970s, including the recession, changing sexual attitudes, and underage drinking and drug abuse. Ultimately, the showrunners moved the narrative more towards the dynamics of the group itself and away from the time period in which it was set.
Grace, the face of That '70s Show, left after Season 7 to pursue a film career; rumors suggest he didn't get along with his castmates either. Kutcher scaled back his involvement around the same time. The show was completely reworked around the remaining cast members, but only survived one more season before Fox decided it was time to pull the plug.
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Scrubs had two lives; the surrealistic medical dramedy ran on NBC from 2001-2008, and then from 2009-2010 on ABC. The show's cast was anchored by Dr. John Dorian (Zach Braff), alongside Elliot Reid (Sarah Chalke), Christopher Turk (Donald Faison), and Perry Cox (John C. McGinley). The WGA writer's strike in 2007 derailed the seventh season of Scrubs, and ABC ended up buying the show and airing it for Seasons 8 and 9.
Braff and Chalke left as series regulars in Season 8, leaving behind just Faison and McGinley from the original cast. The new additions of characters played by the likes of Eliza Coupe and Dave Franco weren't well-received, and the show just felt different. Creator Bill Lawrence went so far as to ask ABC to rename the series Scrubs Med, since the show didn't resemble the original much at all. It died a quiet death at the end of Season 9.
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The Happy Days spin-off Laverne & Shirley is a slapstick sitcom from the '70s and '80s that starred Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams as the titular characters. The dynamic duo lived in Milwaukee and worked at Schotz Brewery as beer bottle cappers, while fending off advances from their upstairs neighbors Lenny (Michael McKean) and Squiggy (David Lander).
Believe it or not, Shirley left Laverne & Shirley during the last season of the show because of a dispute with the studio regarding time off for her pregnancy. After Williams left the show, she sued Paramount for $20 million. The suit was settled out of court. The show finished Season 8 without Williams, but ABC shut it down for good soon after.
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The X-Files was a sci-fi drama about FBI agents investigating the supernatural that originally ran on Fox for nine seasons in the '90s and early 2000s. Viewers tuned in partly for the chemistry between believer Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and skeptic Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). Their relationship was developed slowly over the course of the series, from grudging partnership to close friendship to full-blown romance.
That's why it was a pretty big blow to the show when Mulder was abducted by aliens at the end of the seventh season. Worse yet, it all happened because of a money dispute between Duchovny and 20th Century Fox. The showrunners created a new character named John Doggett (Robert Patrick) to fill the void, but the magic was gone. The show mercifully ended shortly after Mulder said goodbye. When The X-Files came back in 2016, though, Duchovny was back on board.