overthinking the idiot box

May 31, 2005

The Recasting Dilemma:
A New Lease on Life, or Just Shark-Jumping?

by Consuela Clabby

Anyone who follows entertainment news has witnessed it. It starts in the distance, a soft murmur as the rumors first surface, growing louder and louder when the story is confirmed until the noise is deafening. The uproar usually involves letter-writing campaigns, proposals for the unlawful use of eggplants, and even online petitions.

Maybe the writers think they've said all they want to say here, and would rather write dialogue for foul-mouthed cowboys on HBO.
The reason for all this outrage? Cast or format changes for a television show past its prime, which neither the fans nor the network can let go. The show has been on for several years and it's built a good following, but the cast and the show are both tired. They've had five years or more of eighty-hour weeks and mad production schedules, fights with the network and early-morning calls. Maybe one actor thinks she's got a movie career; maybe another wants to spend more time with his family. Maybe the writers think they've said all they want to say here, and would rather write dialogue for foul-mouthed cowboys on HBO.

But the network won't let go, because there's still money to be made. The party's not over!

So the network clings to the actors, who are edging towards the door, but the network has them pinned between the dried-out cheese tray and the half-empty keg, and they can't leave. At least until there's a crash in the kitchen and the network looks away for a moment, leaving the actors free to make a dash for it.

Now they're gone, and the network's all, "What do we do now? Our beautiful money-machine show!" And the Whiz Kid (there's always one: he's socially inept, but he brought the Doritos, so they keep him around) says, "Well, why not bring in some new actors?"

And the rest of the network guys go, "Hmmmm."

So there you have it: the point at which Your Show becomes Some Other Show. It's The X-Files, Season 8. The West Wing, Season 6. And Stargate SG-1, Season 9.

So what does the recasting mean for the show? When does it work, and when does it not? (I won't ask, "why should we care?" because you're reading SMRT-TV, aren't you?)

There are shows where recasting works fine, like Law & Order, which just keeps going and going. I can't count the number of assistant district attorneys they've had, but it doesn't matter. Structure and format in that context is far more important than the individual actors, so the show floats on quite happily, burning through one ADA per season, with no evident damage to the ratings or the quality of the storytelling.

Sure, ER survived without him. But the question is: how did America?
ER has survived its many cast changes surprisingly well, given the attention placed on the cast when the show first went on the air. (Remember George Clooney before he was a movie star?) And yet it soldiers on, a little tired now; but the strength of the medical-show format is sufficient to maintain an audience. Viewers know what they'll get: some personal drama, a moment of bonding, an unexpected medical twist. Every so often there's a big change, but the cast is large enough and the formula strong enough that even if some of the audience wanders off because Mark Greene is dead, enough new people will tune in to keep it going.

The shows that don't manage the transition as well have a small, charismatic cast, or lack formulaic plots. When the cast is small, the success of the show is usually attributed to that cast. They're the face of the show, and the viewers attach to them in ways that they might not with a larger ensemble.

Ain't nothing like the real thing —
just don't tell the T-1000.
Case in point: The X-Files, seasons 8 and 9. The X-Files just wasn't The X-Files without Mulder's overpriced suits and Scully's towering heels — and the way Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny connected. It might have been a good show, but it wasn't The X-Files its viewers had grown to love over seven years. Showrunner Chris Carter tried to retain the formula, so the new actors (Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish, not uncharismatic themselves) had to battle weirdness and secrets in high places; but it didn't work. They were introduced too quickly, and the situation was complicated by Anderson's continued presence, so there wasn't even a clean break. The long-time fans couldn't pretend they were watching an entirely new show, even if they wanted to, because Scully was still there. The show's formula, which Carter had assumed was its primary appeal, wasn't strong enough to support the loss of the legendary Mulder-Scully partnership. As a result the show lost both audience share and prestige during its last few seasons, and when it ended, there were few who thought it should have kept going.

It's easy enough to tell when a show has failed to survive the transition; so what does that say for two shows that are currently in the middle of such a reconstruction?

The West Wing isn't particularly formulaic, and the cast, while charismatic and well-written, is large. As an ensemble show, there aren't any characters who define the show in the same way that Mulder and Scully did for The X-Files. However, much of the original charm of the show relied on Aaron Sorkin's particular style, and John Wells, for all his competence, isn't Aaron Sorkin. As a result, the show wobbled seriously after Sorkin's departure at the end of Season 4, and continued to wobble into the 2004-2005 season. That said, as of this writing, it appears to have regained its footing, with a new focus on the upcoming presidential election.

The new cast, headlined this season by Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits, hasn't yet replaced the current cast, and the show is taking its time moving the new characters into place. In fact, the process by which the cast is changing is mirrored by the current storyline, which is the battle for the post-Bartlett presidency. This is a creative stroke: it brings the metatextual issues into the plot, without that annoying wink-and-nod one so often sees when metatext is acknowledged. So far, the process is working: the show is both more interesting and getting a better critical reception than it was in Season 5. Viewers who had drifted away after Sorkin left (myself included) find themselves newly intrigued by the storyline. But there's no way to predict the audience's response after the fictional election, when President Jed Bartlett and most of his staff leave the White House for the last time. It won't be exactly the same show — but it could be almost as good. I suspect that, if the writing stays as strong as it was for the last half-season, the show will survive the changeover.

Stargate SG-1, by comparison, is moving into its 9th season. For the past 8 years, the core cast of four had been anchored by Richard Dean Anderson. Now Anderson has finally managed to dodge the piles of money the network was throwing at him and escape back to LA. Additionally, Don Davis has moved on to a more high-profile role on The West Wing, and Amanda Tapping, the only regular female cast member, is out on maternity leave for a quarter of Season 9.

This leaves some gaps on the roster, and in order to populate the show, the producers have cast Ben Browder and Beau Bridges as new military members of the show's secret Stargate Command. They're also bringing back Claudia Black to reprise a recurring role while Tapping is gone. As one might expect, this has much of the viewing audience in an uproar. The surprise is that the fan response has so far been promising. Browder and Black in particular are a big draw, given their success as a pair of adventurous lovers on the cult hit Farscape.

So we have two questions: will be the same show; and will it be successful? For myself, I don't expect it to be the same show. One of the attractions of the show up to now has been the fairly simple formula married to engaging characters. Now the dynamic, both between the members of the cast, and between the cast and the audience, will be dramatically different. It's not going to be the same show: too much will have changed, both within the cast and within the greater story.

Will the new show be successful? Possibly: shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer managed a lot of cast changes with skill, but then they never tried to replace Buffy with a new character, either. And the Writers for Stargate aren't as talented as Joss Whedon. I expect that some of the audience will simply stop watching, because the show has changed too much. But the new cast members, and a relaunch with a new story arc, may generate enough interest to keep the franchise going for one or two more seasons. This depends, however, on whether the writers can juggle both story-arc and show formula, write well for old and new characters, and keep enough of the old charm to please the veteran viewers, while still appealing to those new to the franchise. To be brutally frank, I don't see that kind of talent in the writers' room at Gekko Productions.

Which won't keep me from watching anyway: tune into the Sci-Fi Channel in late July to find out for yourself.

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