We’ve seen this trend in television happen time and time again. Stars want to quit production to pursue alternate opportunities, are fighting with their co-stars or their acting is just not making the mark. Fans anxiously wait for a well-written adieu to their beloved characters. Perhaps a fatal car accident or a series finale based on their dramatic move to another city. You tune in to watch their fate and are taken aback. Did Aunt Viv bleach her skin? Where did Jesus’ growth spurt come from? Is it just me, or has there been eight different Bobby Drapers?
Television sitcoms are constantly switching out their characters for a different actor. Regardless of the reasoning, this in turn, has a major effect on the program and their fan base. There’s nothing more frustrating and confusing to have one of your favorite characters switched out. When Freeform’s series, “The Fosters,” gave the role of Jesus Foster to Noah Centineo, originally played by Jake T. Austin, I was livid. Austin, wanting to venture out into other roles, left the sitcom at the end of their second season. Jesus went away to boarding school for wrestling, that is, until he returned as Centineo in season three. I hit my rewind button distraught, not knowing who just popped up on my television screen.
That same discomfort I felt, is similar to feelings expressed by fans when networks make these abrupt decisions. For freshman Erika Knowles, these adjustments alter her perceptions and lead to a distaste for the entire program.
“You can tell if a character doesn’t look like it always has in the previous seasons. That affects what my thought is about the character,” Knowles said. “I see the character one way, and then the director tries to make the character stay the same, and it doesn’t. That makes me want to stop watching the show because I fell in love with this character. Different actors have different ways they act.”
Junior Betsy Lugo expressed similar sentiments when the popular series “That’s So Raven,” decided to swap the mean girl, Bianca for an actress she wasn’t familiar with.
“There’s been various instances where some of my favorite characters have been changed, but I will never forget when they changed Adrienne Bailon. It really caught me off-guard,” said Lugo. “There are valid reasons why characters change but, no matter what, you have an inconsistency in the show and the character. When the rest of the cast dynamic stays the same, and one thing changes, it’s very easy for audiences to pick that up.”
Television historian for DePaul’s College of Communication Luke Stadel notes that these circumstances will often be used to emphasize the characters the production team wants you to focus on.
“People are most familiar with ‘Bewitched,’ and the two different Darrins. That one is interesting because it related to the show, which was a domestic sitcom all about the wife. When they moved it to Dick Sargent, people tolerated that because Samantha was the main draw,” said Stadel. “There were two seasons of, “The Munsters,” and they had a different girl who played the daughter Marilyn. She was the generic pretty blonde girl, it doesn’t really matter. It enforces the point of the show.”
Lugo, who is currently studying cinema and media studies at DePaul, connects the trend to casting and director’s preference.
“There’s multiple things that go into it, a lot has to do with the director, producer and casting. It really depends on the person who is creating the show,” said Lugo. “It’s either they focus on the acting ability and the looks, or just the looks. If they choose someone who can fluidly transition, without cutting attention from the story, that’s great. When they focus on just the looks, it really creates an inconsistency.”
Chemistry between co-stars brings this inconsistency to light. Despite the drama behind the scenes, Janet Hubert’s Aunt Viv had a spark to her, a mama that didn’t take any mess. When Daphne Maxwell-Reid took her place in season four, a more light-hearted Aunt Viv stepped into the Bel-Air mansion. The two women brought different flares to the popular series, making the switch obvious for fans to discover.
Looking at these situations from a rating’s perspective, Stadel points out that in contemporary society this shift doesn’t necessarily have to harm a program’s continuation.
“In the present day, producers don’t need to worry about niche ratings, if a particular character has a really strong fan base,” said Stadel. “Networks want to worry, if the replacement is going to potentially offend an audience. Today audiences can hold networks accountable. They can start a hashtag, or a Twitter trend, to get the character back. It’s easier to have their voices heard.”
Stadel goes on to mention that, if anything, these changes are what makes television exciting.
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing to see replacements. Shows that are the best involve a degree of advancement within the characters. That’s what I like about TV. It’s like hitting the reset button. It’s a way to keep the show fresh,” said Stadel.
With that being said, this doesn’t give networks a pass to make sudden decisions. As these characters grow, their fans grow with them. Sometimes it’s more than just a role, but it’s sitting in your living room, watching someone on screen that looks just like you. Replacing the character, in turn, replaces the identity.
Knowles sums it perfectly; give these characters the ending that they deserve.
“Have the character finish up the season. kill it off or have some reason this person is leaving,” she said. “Directors feel that no one will notice, but to some people it might be a very important character.”