I was thinking today about the Simpsons, and it occurred to me that the Simpsons is an example of a rare TV event; the Show Star Switcheroo.
When the Simpsons first became a regular primetime show, the star of the show was Bart Simpson. You saw him everywhere, his stupid haircut, his lingo (Don’t have a cow, man! - I’m an underachiever and proud of it!) his T-shirts, his everything. He pitched Butterfingers. He was the show’s central character and the major marketing focus.
Today, no longer; no, Homer is the UNQUESTIONED star of the show. He is the focus of most episodes (or at least more than any other Simpson) gets the most lines, is the most marketed, and seems to be around more. Bart is second fiddle at best; really, now he’s tied with Marge and Lisa.
Obviously, this is a rare phenomenon. TV shows start with a concept and write scripts from there, so it is remarkable for the show’s focus to change. But I did manage to think of three examples:
Family Ties. The star of the show when it first aired was Meredith Baxter-Birney. Within a season and a half her stardom had been completely supplanted by the vastly more talented and charismatic Michael J. Fox, who went on to make movies (including some really terrific ones) and got another sitcom, while she went to TV-Movie Hell in the cell between Valerie Bertinelli and Judith Light.
Family Matters. The star of the show when it first aired was Reginald VelJohnson. The Steve Urkel character wasn’t even a regular; but within a year or two he was a regular, and after awhile Urkel was the show’s star, although VelJohnson sort of shares the spotlight.
What I find interesting about this is that it’s obviously not what the show’s makers planned, but they were dealt with a strange situation; the supporting character (Homer, Alex, and Urkel) was more appealing than the star (Bart, Elyse, and Dad) and yet the show still maintained a very high level of popularity and lasted long enough to make the change.
Oddly, in Michael J. Fox’s second sitcom, the opposite happened. It was conceived as a star vehicle for Fox, but by the time he left, it was an ensemble show with Fox getting only marginally more attention than the rest of the cast.
But keep in mind that Homer’s role is sort of a “constant background presence” half the time, when he’s only present only to say something completely stupid (read: “funny”) whenever another character says something. Most of the time, these little “stupidisms” are completely ignored by the other characters.
Then again, almost all the other characters play this sort of “background role” at one point or another, but Homer does it the most often by far.
The other half the time, when his presence is actually important to the “plot”, he acts as a “stepping stone” from one bizarre plot twist to another. So, yes, he IS very prominent and popular, but I do not think one can conclude he’s the “star”.
But I DO agree that Bart had fallen from the spotlight to “just another cast member”.
I think with Bart, if I may go back to him, is that people aren’t as surprised with his rebelness; he gets old after awhile because there’s only so much you can do with a rebel 10-year-old. When The Simpsons first aired, there was a shock, with parents flicking off the TVs–not wanting their darlings to watch rebel Bart Simpson, with Bart’s language (“Bitchin’!”) and his troublesome ways (this is waaaay before South Park…if only parents then knew what was coming). Then as the 90s progressed and more shock TV came on, Bart Simpson was the least of their worries. Now parents were inviting their kids to watch Bart.
That’s just my opinion. I could remember being in second grade and collecting everything Bart and asking my peers if they saw the recent episode of The Simpsons and they said no, that their parents wouldn’t allow them.
Wring - No way. Fox took over Family Ties long before his Parkinson’s became public knowledge.
As for secondary charcacters taking over TV series…lessee here:
The Cosby Show spinoff A Different World was intended to be a Lisa Bonet vehicle. Bonet’s character was quickly overtaken by Jasmine Guy’s Whitley and her dealings with Dwayne Wayne. Then Bonet left the show altogether What was Bonet on the show for for - one season? Two?
We may be seeing a Show Star Switcheroo in progress with Will & Grace. Over-the-top Jack is getting about equal play now with the title characters.
This doesn’t quite qualify, but Michael Richards’ Kramer schtick stole a lot of Jerry Seinfeld’s thunder on Seinfeld. That may have been intentional, however.
Actually, most viewers I know found Jerry himself to be less interesting on Seinfeld than Kramer OR George.
Of course, the show’s name was never changed to Kramer or Costanza.
Luke Perry and his plot twists took over Beverly Hills 90210 from Jason Priestly/Shannon Doherty.
John Steed wasn’t even in the first season of “The Avengers”. Originally called “Police Surgeon”, it focused on Ian Hendry as Dr. David Keel and a sidekick. For the second season, it was renamed “The Avengers”, and Patrick MacNee was hired to be the new sidekick. The Steed character quickly became much more popular than ‘David Keel’, and Hendry quit. Steed was paired with various sidekicks until Honor Blackman stuck.
And of course with the star of the X-Files became either Scully or Doggett (I haven’t figured out which yet though I’m leaning more towards Scully for the first half of the season and then Doggett for the second half when Scully’s pregnancy made it difficult for her to do much) when David Duchovny left for most of the 8th season, and since he won’t be back for the 9th either one of the above will remain the star (I’m guessing Doggett as I suspect they’ll want to phase Scully out so they can bring in Agent Reyes as a regular).
I appreciate so-called “ensemble” shows much more than shows with one or two big stars (with a few notable exceptions). Too often, though, a show’s “creative” team will allow the popularity of one character to screw up the balance by trying to work too many stories around that character. Sometimes this just leads to bad stories and overall decreasing popularity (e.g. Happy Days), but sometimes it leads to disgruntled cast members who walk away from the show, ruining it’s structure forever (e.g. MASH*).
I loved Taxi more than I can say, and I loved Andy Kaufman and Christopher Lloyd most of all. But Jesus Christ! When three out of four shows started to be about them, it got to be too much, you know?
The moment I laid eyes on Furio, I thought to myself, “Please God, don’t let them screw up The Sopranos trying to make this guy a star.” Fortunately, they haven’t yet!