This article contains spoilers for Breaking Bad, Suits, House of Cards, and The Office.
I watched an astonishing amount of TV in high school. Once I started something I liked, I never stopped; I was determined to watch until the end because I believed it would stay amazing, even after several seasons.
Unfortunately, most of the time it did not. Many of these shows lasted too long, and I had been too emotionally invested to recognize why until now. In trying to pinpoint what caused the downfall of several shows I loved, I recognized a common thread. More often than not, a series took a turn for the worse after the sudden disappearance of its main character. As soon as the writers killed the hero, they killed their show too.
While I am certainly no authority on creating a successful TV show, my credibility lies within my personal experiences as a long-time consumer of film and television, and as an avid reader of screenwriting books by experts. My research leads me to conclude that a show’s success relies mainly on two important components: premise and character.
A show’s premise is the catalyst for its main plot. It is the pathos of the series and provides an outline that dictates the course of the show’s events. An appealing premise is essential to a show’s survival. If the premise of a series is bad, why would anyone watch it?
Just like a captivating premise, a strong main character helps ensure the success of a show. The hero functions as the carrier of the premise and is responsible for delivering it clearly and charismatically.
A show’s success relies mainly on two important components: premise and character.
The premise and the main character enjoy a mutualistic relationship; each one benefits from the other. If the premise is a fragile parcel, the main character is the delivery person. If a package contains an expensive item, why would anyone choose to open it if they see that it is beaten up due to careless handling? Likewise, if the package is delivered unharmed, what is the point if it has no value?
Take Breaking Bad. One user on the show’s IMDB page describes the premise as follows: “A high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer turns to manufacturing and selling methamphetamine in order to secure his family’s future.” In short, Walter White (the high school chemistry teacher, played by Bryan Cranston) cooks meth. No one would watch the show without Walter White, and no one would watch the show if he was not cooking meth. Breaking Bad never removed White or his drug-manufacturing habits, and the series went on to become one of the most critically successful TV shows of all time.
Breaking Bad follows the formula that Blake Snyder, a successful screenwriter and author of the book Save the Cat, calls the “promise of the premise.” His website elaborates that “what is fun, catchy or hooks our interest about a movie’s poster must be paid off once we get inside the theatre, [or] the audience will consider it…a bad experience.” The same can be said about a TV series, except that it has the added challenge of fulfilling this promise on an ongoing basis.
Once a TV show breaks the “promise of the premise,” it is no longer the same show, even if its new content is of quality. Since the main character delivers the premise, their departure usually expedites this process.
Suits is one example. The show originally revolved around Mike Ross, a man with a photographic memory who fraudulently worked at a law firm without a law degree. After Season 7, the actor playing Mike (Patrick J. Adams) left the show. While Suits probably should have already ended by then, since Mike acquired a law license (premise = moot), the show’s credibility took a major hit after Mike’s departure. While I still find it entertaining, the elements that made the show unique – its premise and main character – are no longer there, leaving behind a series identical to any other legal drama.
Once a TV show breaks the ‘promise of the premise,’ it is no longer the same show, even if its new content is of quality.
So why do TV shows keep going after their stars leave (putting the ratings reason aside)?
House of Cards is an interesting case. The show followed American politician Frank Underwood as he did whatever he could to consolidate ultimate political power. In October 2017, at the beginning of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault scandal, the show’s lead actor Kevin Spacey was also accused of sexual misconduct by several people in the industry. The creators severed all ties with the actor and produced the show’s final season without him. I assume part of the willingness to proceed was to avoid punishing the show’s cast and crew for one person’s wrongdoings. However, this move compromised the show’s premise and led to a final season with polarizing reviews from viewers and critics. (Though, in my opinion, the show had already suffered right after Frank became President because the show fulfilled its original premise, like Suits).
Whatever the circumstances, actors are occasionally forced to leave projects prematurely. So, writers faced with an unexpected departure must be careful about how they proceed with their show (if at all).
One approach could be to replace the hero with a character that fulfills the same functions as its predecessor, and who carefully takes over as the executor of the original premise. Although I admittedly have not seen much of The Office, critics (and my friends) generally agree that the show’s final two seasons were great even with Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) as a stand-in for the departed Michael Scott (Steve Carrell), who had been the show’s anchor. This is because the writers satisfied the original premise – a work environment commanded by a quirky and sometimes insufferable boss – while still employing an equally captivating main character to lead the show.
One approach could be to replace the hero with a character that fulfills the same functions as its predecessor, and who carefully takes over as the executor of the original premise.
A second option, if the writers believe that the stories of supporting characters remain unexplored, is to write a spin-off series. This solution offers a (typically overdue) focus on another character and avoids undermining the credibility of the original show. House of Cards could have benefitted from a spin-off that told Claire’s story. Instead, by choosing to explore the life of Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) after Frank’s death, it did not deliver the “promise of the premise.” The Conners, on the other hand, seeks to finish the story of the characters in Roseanne, without Roseanne present. The audience does not expect Roseanne and cannot be disappointed when it gets The Conners.
Ever since I started noticing when and why shows decline in quality, it has upset me even more. As far as pet peeves go, there is nothing more annoying than being tethered to a show and knowing it is not what it used to be. As a loyal viewer, I encourage writers to continue their characters’ stories through spin-offs; the television world would be a better place with more of them. By throwing an old character into new circumstances, writers create something new, while still respecting what drew their original viewers in.