We all know when a sitcom replaces a character or just throws a new character in to mix things up (usually a kid). But sometimes sitcoms will do something even more annoying. They will realize that a supporting character is very popular, and decide to milk it for all its worth. They will increase the character’s role so that they appear constantly, even at the expense of the series regulars, and very often until the audience doesn’t care about them anymore. In extreme cases, this even leads to an awful spin-off show where the character just isn’t the same.
Now of course some shows do it right. The Golden Girls had Dorothy’s ex Stan quite often but he was never overused. Full House made Kimmy Gibbler a regular but didn’t overuse her, though she did get more annoying. Step By Step had Cody but he never overshadowed the family. Newhart had Larry,Daryl, and Daryl who were popular but never so much so that the show revolved around them. Friends would bring Gunther back often but not at times which made no sense. And of course Seinfeld practically wrote the book on how to use supporting characters. Showing them just enough that we wanted to see more. Even Newman who probably would have been made a regular on any other show stayed just a supporting character because Seinfeld knew that to much Newman would not work out.
Here are some examples of sitcoms which didn’t get this and overused a popular supporting character, and some which managed to find a balance so that the character actually fit in.
Starting with this one because it’s the show that inspired this article. One of the many characters to appear on this show was John Astin as Harry’s stepfather, Buddy. Buddy was a bit nuts and John Astin did a fantastic job on this character. So in the 7th season someone decided to make him more recurring, and buddy appeared in several episodes that year. By the end of the year the character lost what made him so much fun to see, and it must not have been just me to think that because after that season neither Buddy or John Astin ever appeared on the show again.
Mary Tyler Moore
Among the popular characters on this show were best friends Rhoda played by Valerie Harper and Phyllis played by Chloris Leachman. For whatever reason, both of these characters were deemed popular enough to earn spin-offs. Rhoda was decent, Phyllis not so much. These shows were OK but the characters still weren’t teh same on the original show. The real problem was on Mary Tyler Moore, who was going to fill the void? Thank goodness for Betty White who saved the day with her character Sue Ann Nivens.
Do I really have to talk about the way Fonzie took this show over? Actually this was ok, at first. But it got really silly especially after the majority of the original cast took off. It really became “The Fonzie” show and I still can’t understand how this show lasted 11 seasons. Heck, even the title to the cartoon spin off only mentioned Fonzie by name, the others were “The Happy Days Gang”. Considering the original premise of the show was supposed to be on Richie and his family that’s pretty amazing.
This one baffles me! Who though this would work? On Cheers Carla was divorced form the very gruff Nick Tortelli. Dan Hedaya did a great job making this character disgusting yet funny. In small doses. For some reason someone thought a spin-off would work. It didn’t, The Tortelli’s only lasted a few episodes before it vanished. Nick would return to Cheers one more time to close out the character, but who thought this series would work???
The Cosby Show
Yeah even this show was not innocent of this. Why did Kenny get more screen time than Rudy? Why did they keep bringing Vanessa’s boyfriend Robert back even though the character had lived past his usefulness? Why did Theo’s friends have entire episodes devoted to them? The worst was the Pam episodes, I couldn’t have cared less about her friends Lance and Charmaine while they were funny they also appeared way to often those last two years.
Here is one that actually worked! I guess I can see why, being a fan of Alice Ghostly on Bewitched also. When Bernice first appeared on the show she was just supposed to be a one shot character. But she was so popular they kept bringing her back, until she was in every episode. Of course the show got so bad those last two years the producers were probably hoping more Bernice would help. It didn’t.
Mad About You
Sometimes this happens because of necessity. As this show went on it kept losing supporting cast members. Mark, Lisa, and Fran all vanished from the show leaving only Ira for Paul and Jamie to talk to. So what did the producers do? Rather then introduce new friends they made Paul’s parents Bert and Sylvia regulars not to mention Paul’s sister. Bert and Sylvia were decent characters when they appeared a few times a season, but every single episode? Yeah this was just a bad idea in my opinion because not only did they get on our nerves, but the chemistry of the show just wasn’t the same.
This was one was a close call. Nick came in as Mallory’s boyfriend and stuck around. Scott Valentine was pretty funny in the role. While he never really became more than semi-regular on Family Ties, some genius decided to give him a spin-off. The show was called The Art of Nick, and never made it past pilot. Thank goodness, because the pilot was BORING!
I went back and forth on this but finally decided it was worth a mention. When Roseanne was getting along we met Mark, Becky’s boyfriend, and David, Darlene’s boyfriend. For whatever reason as the series went on Becky and Darlene got less time while Mark and David got seen more and more. Whether this was a bad thing or a good thing is a matter of opinion. My opinion? I didn’t care about these guys so seeing them get more focus than Becky and Darlene didn’t do anything for me. And yes I realize that the reasons they were on so much is because Sara Gilbert and Lecy Goranson were off in college.
Who’s The Boss?
Another close call. There was a point when people thought Mona was so popular she should get her own show. They did a backdoor pilot where Mona moves into a hotel to help her brother. For whatever reason wiser heads prevailed and Mona was back on Who’s The Boss? Thank goodness, no way that show would have worked.
Growing Pains/Just the Ten of Us
Here’s a classic example. In the first few seasons of Growing Pains we had Coach Lubbock played
Bill Kirchenbauer. He was a funny character, the joke being he was a Gym teacher who got stuck teaching things like English and directing plays. Someone must have seen something because in one episode Lubbock is given a backstory where he has a bunch of kids, and is about to get fired. Long story short Lubbock left Growing Pains and ended up on Just the Ten of Us. And the show was ok, but Lubbock wasn’t the same character which makes sense, the crass character wouldn’t have worked as a main lead. Despite being one of the original TGIF shows, it didn’t last very long.
Perfect Strangers/Family Matters
Actually I am not going to talk about Urkel yet. First I want to talk about Harriett Winslow. As I am sure you all know, we first met Harriett on Perfect Strangers. She was the elevator operator who always had a wisecrack. When she was spun off into her own show, she was boring. The show was basically just a bland family sitcom like any other. Until Steven Urkel appeared, in what was supposed to be a one shot role. Of course the whole show was re-worked to revolve around him. Much iike with Fonzie, Urkel kept this show from being a forgotten boring family show. Family Matters is a very special case, a show based on a supporting character from another series which was saved by its own supporting character. Weird.
In one of the earlier seasons we were introduced to a character named Miller Redfield. He was an up and comer who was a bit dim witted. He appeared a couple times and was good for a laugh. Then one season, Miller was brought in as a regular for a whole year. It’s a long story involving Jim walking off FYI, but I don’t know it because I had stopped watching by then.
Will & Grace
Again, sometimes things happen. During one of the last seasons of this show Debra Messing’s pregnancy resulted in Grace being seen less and less. The result was that Jack and Karen got more screen time, almost making Will & Grace supporting characters in their own show!
The Big Bang Theory
Yeah I’ve gone on about this show. You may think I am going to pick on Amy and Bernadette, but actually I liked them as additions to the cast. It was time for Penny to finally have some friends. No, what bothers me is the way they are trying to increase Stuart’s role. He used to just be the guy who ran the comic book store that the guys went to, and the last year or two they have been increasing his role so he has more interaction with the others especially Raj. Um, why? Sorry but we have enough main characters on this show we don’t need yet another to focus on. I guess I get that Raj needs a pal now that Howard is married, and maybe if they get him a steady girlfriend Stuart will return to the comic book store full time. It’s just my opinion of course, but I hate this character.
Let me know if there are any you think I missed.