Charlie Sheen’s exit poses a quandary for Warner Bros

2011-03-09 08:43

New York – Charlie Sheen is gone, but his sitcom, Two and a Half Men, is likely to stick around.

Although the eight-year-old show is aging and revolves around Sheen’s playboy character, Charlie Harper, Warner Bros Television and CBS have every incentive to try to keep it going after producers fired Sheen on Monday.

The show, for one, is a huge money maker. It is the most popular comedy on the air, and is in syndication.

 But the more important question might be whether viewers will buy a remade show next fall.

There are numerous examples of shows losing stars and plugging along with other actors, though not necessarily in the same roles. Just ask Dick Sargent, Jimmy Smits, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Sandy Duncan and, yes, even Sheen.

In Sheen’s case, he worked for two years on ABC’s Spin City, essentially replacing original star Michael J Fox in 2000 when Parkinson’s disease made it impossible for Fox to continue.

NYPD Blue continued for a decade with Smits after its original lead actor, David Caruso, decided he wanted to try movies.

Farrah Fawcett-Majors was television’s biggest new star when she left Charlie’s Angels in 1977, although she made guest appearances afterwards.

Ladd joined the cast the same year, with the show running another four seasons.

Duncan had a tough task in 1987: Replace Valerie Harper in Valerie. It was eventually renamed The Hogan Family and went off the air in 1991.

Suzanne Somers left Three’s Company in 1981, and was replaced by Priscilla Barnes.

The show ended in 1984.
Each of those new actors played different characters than the ones who left.

That wasn’t the case with Sargent, who moved right in as Bewitched star Elizabeth Montgomery’s husband, Darrin Stephens, when the original Darrin, Dick York, left in 1969. The show ended in 1972.

Even if Two and a Half Men returns, it’s highly unlikely that there will be a new Charlie Harper. The hard-partying Sheen embodied the character. Some suggested it was written with his real-life persona in mind.

Will they buy it?

Viewers wouldn’t buy it, said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

“It would be like if your mother said, ‘The role of your father is now being played by so-and-so,’ and not ‘I’ve left your father and here is my new guy,’” Thompson said.

What would be important is for the show to keep the same “Odd Couple plus a kid” dynamic embodied by the suave Harper, his nebbish brother portrayed by Jon Cryer and the Cryer character’s son, he said.

Characters coming and going in major series are no longer unusual, particularly if the series stays on the air for a long time. When ER came to an end on NBC, it had a completely different cast than when it started.

Law & Order rotated actors.

“Viewers expect that,” said Tim Brooks, author of The Complete Director to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows. “They don’t expect shows to be static. People change over time. Relationships change over time.”

Even the deaths of stars haven’t stopped networks from keeping shows alive. Chico and the Man tried recasting when its star, Freddie Prinze, committed suicide in 1977.

And when John Ritter died of a heart ailment in 2003, ABC made the death of his character a central plot point in 8 Simple Rules.

For TV networks and producers, there’s much less risk to keeping proven concepts alive than to hope audiences embrace something new.

And it’s not as if Two and a Half Men has worn out its welcome. The Nielsen Company said it was the highest-rated comedy on television last week, even though CBS aired a rerun because production on the show had stopped.

Warner Bros and CBS already made an investment in the show’s future – the cast is signed for next season.

That included Sheen, until his firing.

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