The Cousin Oliver Syndrome is when a sitcom in the middle of its run gets the inspired idea to add a new child cast member, out of the blue and for almost no reason, in an attempt to get the ratings to back up. This is different than replacing a character that has left the show, usually there is no reason and no need for this new character. They are simply there to smile at the camera and draw in new viewers.
Why do these shows keep doing this? I can understand the problem. When a show has been on for a long time and the kid actors who were once so cute start to become old and boring, what is a show to do? Wait, I know, we’ll bring in a brand new character which no one has ever seen before to love and adore! Sometimes itâ€™s a new child (age 5 or younger) and sometimes itâ€™s a new teenage heartthrob. Why can’t these creators figure out that we aren’t going to want to watch this new kid, we want to see the characters we know and love.
In all fairness, there have been times when this has actually worked. Sometimes when it doesn’t the creators realize and rectify the mistake. Of course, more often than not it not only fails but kills the show. Here is a look at some great examples of just what I am talking about.
I am excluding when the show has a child, since this isn’t totally contrived (usually), also excluding when a program inexplicably ages a child. That is a another topic for another day
The Brady Bunch-I am not sure if this show started this trend, but they certainly made it a clichÃ©. Toward the end of the 5th season the writers decided to add a character. It seems that some relatives of Carol’s we never knew existed is going on a trip and are dropping their kid off with the Brady’s (nice parents!). We get Cousin Oliver, the most annoying cast addition ever. And he isn’t just in the background; he was part of the story in virtually every episode he was in. His first episode ended in a pie fight, and it was all downhill from there. To be fair, the episodes he was in would have been stupid without him. Cindy as Shirley temple? Bobby thinks Sam the Butcher is a spy? Hair tonic that turns your hair orange? Cousin Oliver did nothing but sink the ship. The amazing is that networks didn’t learn from this, they kept doing it!
Diff’rent Strokes-It was around the 6th season when creators decided they needed to get some new life into this series. They had Phillip Drummond fall in love and marry a woman, who just happened to have a small child the same age Arnold! Isn’t it funny how that happens on TV? Actually I think he was few years younger giving Arnold a chance to be big brother for a change. Sam wasn’t too bad a character, and he may have actually kept the show going a few years. The only show I remember was the kidnapping show, which was very serious (as this show was known for). The truth is I was not a regular fan so I can’t say for sure if adding Sam helped, but the show and he lasted another two years so it didn’t hurt.
The Facts of Life-The spin-off to Diff’rent Strokes which was just a preachy. Toward the end of the series Mrs.Garrett was married off, so they brought in Chloris Leachman as Beverly Ann. However I will talk about that another time. Actually this show had a lot of turnover in its supporting cast but the main cast stayed the same. Blair, Natalie, Tootie, and Joe. They added George, and he disappeared (what happened to that guy anyway?) Then Andy came along, and wasn’t too bad. The final addition which I never understood was Pippa, an Australian exchange student. What was the point of bringing her on other to give Andy someone to pal around with?
Gimmee A Break!-Ok, everyone who remembers this show, show of hands! All kidding aside, this 80’s sitcom had Nell Carter as a housekeeper and sort of surrogate aunt to a family of a widowed father and his three daughters. The show involved Nell (that was her name on the show) dealing with the teenager’s problems while. Joey Lawrence appeared around the 3rd season as a con artist who ends up being taken in by the family. He didn’t really hurt the show, at first. After the father (played by Dolph Sweet) passed away and the three girls had grown and move on, the creators decided to shake things up. This is a rare case of a character that fit in just fine turning around and killing the show. The premise changed dramatically in its last season, long story short Nell and Joey moved to New York when Joey found his father. However, he dumped Joey and his brother back onto Nell, and that was the premise of the show. This was a desperate attempt to save a dying show. It failed and that was it.
The Cosby Show-This happened twice. The first was when Raven Symone joined the cast a Denise’s adopted daughter. I admit, when I first heard about this I thought they had killed the show. I was wrong, Olivia came aboard during the 6th season and it worked. Like Sam on Diff’rent Strokes, this addition didn’t take anything away from the show, it even helped it. The other one was when Erika Alexander joined the cast as Cousin Pam. Apparently her mother dropped her off because she was moving to California to care for Pam’s grandmother. Why couldn’t Pam go too? Was this explained? To be honest, I don’t care. I never cared for Pam and pretty much ignored her episodes. After six years I already cared about the main cast, I didn’t need to add her to the mix especially when you knew the show was going off the air soon. However, to be fair neither of these additions really hurt the show. I think the secret to adding a cast member is not to do it too late. As I said I tolerated Pam, let’s talk about a cast addition I couldn’t tolerate.
Growing Pains-Oh man, this one hurt. I was so against this one, and unlike Raven Symone I never changed my mind. This was dumb. First of all, don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with Leonardo Dicaprio and enjoyed him in Titanic, Catch Me If You Can, and Inception. But what was he doing on this show? Apparently Jeremy Miller wasn’t the teen heartthrob the creators were hoping for, but sticking this character in didn’t help. Luke was a homeless boy who was brought in to the family by Mike. Unlike other additions which blended in, he stood out. I didn’t watch every episode (Growing Pains was hard to watch that year), but the one’s I did see made it clear that Luke did not belong there. The only smart thing the writers did was write him out before the series finale. One reason this didn’t work is because there was no blood relation. There is a reason these characters are usually “cousins”, we need a reason to suddenly care about them.
Who’s The Boss?-In the 7th season the creators decided it would be a bright idea to bring in a new child. The setup was that a grandmother Tony used to live near in Brooklyn was ill and couldn’t care for her grandson Billy anymore. Apparently there was no one else, so Tony got him. To be fair, the writers did a great job of making it clear that Tony was against this at first. He got quilted into it, and the grandmother even changed her mind. At first. Of course Billy went to live with Tony and Angela and we got some sweet child centered episodes which were totally wrong for this show. This show was never about the children, it was about Tony and Angela. Tony Danza figured this out himself, because when the next season premiered Billy had gone back to his grandmother (off-screen no less), never to be heard from again, and the show went back to getting Tony and Angela together at last.
Married..With Children-Tony Danza realized his mistake after a full season; sometimes it doesn’t even take that long. Peggy’s cousins drop off their six-year-old son Seven and leave him behind for the Bundyâ€™s to take care of. His parents explain that his name comes from the fact that they had “one, two, three, four, five, seven kids”â€”not realizing that they should have counted six instead. He appeared on the seventh season of Married in a handful of episodes, then disappeared without any explanation except for two brief references, one involved a milk carton. This character was extremely unpopular, and I give credit to the creators for taking action and changing their minds. In researching this I pulled up a clip and can totally understand why this character didn’t work. I just wish I actually liked this show…..
Family Matters-I gotta admit, I stopped watching this show at this point. However, in the 7th season we were introduced to a character named Jerry Jamal (or 3J). He was an orphan boy which the Winslow’s adopted. My question is, why? They had a character they phased out, their daughter Judy who just up and vanished one day. If they didn’t have room for her, how did they have room for 3J? Also they had Richie who was the same age. 3J was too young to be a heartthrob and too old to be cute, so what was the point? Anyway, as I said I had given up on this show at this point so it really doesn’t matter.
Home Improvement-I hesitated adding this one, but decided to include since it kind of fits. In the final season of Home Improvement there was a story arc where Tim’s brother had gotten divorced and was forced to move in with Tim and Jill. Oh, and did I mention he had two twin girls? The girls were pretty much just set dressing (and the worst actors ever), so while they didn’t kill the show they didn’t exactly help it
Saved By The Bell-This show presents a curious case. The intended final episodes were filmed with the entire regular cast, including a finale where the teens graduated. Problem is, afterwards, more episodes were ordered, but no one was under contract. Most returned, but Tiffani-Amber Thiessen and Elizabeth Berkley chose not to. Leanna Creel was hired to play new character Tori. But episodes with one character made no reference to the others. The oddest part was the way the showâ€™s aired, you would get a Kelly and Jessie episode with absolutely no mention of Tori followed by a Tori episode with absolutely no mention of Jessie and Kelly. In the final episode, Tori is nowhere to be found and is never mentioned in the spin-off series.
Blossom-Just like Diffâ€™rent Strokes had done, Blossomâ€™s father Nick Russo fell in love and got married. Amazingly, his new wife had a precocious little girl named Kennedy. The ironic thing is that in an earlier episode Blosson had an episode lampooning several sitcom clichÃ©â€™s, including this one! That episode had a cute child who gave one liners, and they were mocking this exactly what they ended up doing for real on the show.
I have focused on kids but this trend is not specific to them. Sometimes shows will suddenly introduce new adult characters, usually in an attempt to revamp the series. For example, late in its run Empty Nest introduced Marsha Warfield as a nurse in the new job Harry had in a free clinic. That year they also brought Sophia, from The Golden Girls, into the regular cast. When Coach moved to Florida, Katharine Helmond joined the cast at the owner of the team Hayden worked for.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didnâ€™t mention that Star Trek has done this, a lot. Ensign Chekov suddenly appeared during Season 2 of the original series. Next Generation had Ro Laren come on board in season 5, only to disappear in season 6. She did return one final time though. Seven of Nine showed up in Voyager in the middle of its run. Finally, who can forget the way Deep Space Nine revamped its entire format so that it could include Worf, from Next Generation, into the show.
Do these work any better than adding children? No, not really. Usually once the shot resorts to this they are just trying to squeeze a few more years out of the program.
Those were the best examples I came up with. I am sure I missed some, if I did please let me know. As we see many sitcoms get the bright idea to do this to boost ratings, and while not every instance kills the show I donâ€™t think there is an example of it helping. In fact doing a stunt like this is almost like the creators throwing up the white towel saying â€œHey, weâ€™re out of ideas!â€
Another time we will talk about the reverse. When a regular character mysteriously vanishes from a show, never to be heard from again. Also I want to dive into when a new character is brought in to replace an established character. That is even harder to pull off.