Television shows are works in progress, and long-running shows often end up much different than the way the show was originally conceived. TV writers love to tinker with their show’s concept and format, and tinkering can breathe new life into an older series. But the weirdest decision a show can make is to get rid of characters — not by killing them off, but by pretending they never existed in the first place. Here are eight massively successful shows that decided to just write characters out of existence with no explanation.
When Ross (played by David Schwimmer) and his wife Carol had a baby, Ben, it started to change the dynamics of the ensemble show. Carol divorced him and went to live with a girlfriend, but Ross had visitation rights. The child’s interaction with his dad served to fuel the plots of several Ross-related episodes. But after the end of the eighth season, Ben went missing — as in, nobody seemed to remember he was ever there. By then, however, Ross had rebounded with Rachel and they had a kid of their own to have parenting episodes with. Fan theories suggest that Ross lost custody of Ben and the rest of the gang just doesn’t bring him up to keep from upsetting Ross about it. Maybe they should check under the couch cushions?
The West Wing
With such a huge cast of talented actors you’d be hard pressed to remember Mandy Hampton from the first season. Her character, a media savvy political consultant who was also an ex-girlfriend of Josh Lyman, really didn’t fit either in the working environment or as a love interest/foil, and when rumors of a season finale shooting began circulating people assumed she would be killed off. However, it was the president who was hit (along with his deputy chief of staff) and Mandy just kind of wandered off, never to be heard from again.
This disappearance has a real purpose, albeit a sad one. When it comes to animation, replacing voice actors is standard operating procedure. But that didn’t happen to Troy McClure, the character voiced by comedian Phil Hartman. He was one of the most popular supporting characters in the early days of the series, a faded Hollywood star who constantly narrated himself into and out of situations. But when Phil Hartman was killed by his wife in 1998, it was decided that rather than recasting the role or killing off the character, the show would simply let the character disappear, thereby “retiring” him from the ensemble. He has not been mentioned again.
Don’t you just hate it when your neighbor just makes himself at home and acts like he lives there and your parents just go along with it? That’s probably how Judy, the youngest Winslow daughter on the show, felt when she suddenly didn’t exist anymore and obnoxious weirdo Steve Urkel was elevated to a starring role. The show eventually ran for nine seasons across two networks, but Judy only lasted for the first four. Sounds like a “Twilight Zone” episode more than a sitcom.
This is the Ur-example of pulling this. Originally “Happy Days” was centered around teenager Richie Cunningham and his family, which included his older brother Chuck and younger sister Joanie. Chuck, however, just wasn’t filling the “older, cooler brother” role the way he should — and audiences were enjoying a minor character — a leather clad rebel named Fonzie — better. By the end of the second season (after recasting the part) the show saw Chuck get on a bus to go to college… but he was never referred to again, Richie was no longer a middle child, and Fonzie went on to rule the show from that point on.
This wacky show owes a lot to its broad cast of misfits, but none moreso than Professor Hickey, introduced in season 5 and played by Jonathan Banks. It also marked the return of the series creator Dan Harmon to writing the show, after his dismissal in season four, and fans loved it. But Banks was also known for another series, “Breaking Bad” spinoff show “Better Call Saul.” During the hiatus between the fifth and sixth seasons, Banks was too committed to “Better Call Saul” to return to “Community.” His character’s absence was never addressed verbally by the characters, but the writers threw in a visual gag for eagle-eyed viewers: an email to Dean Pelton entitled “Buzz Hickey Memorial Services.”
The series has actually pulled this trick twice, once in the original series and once in the “Next Generation” years. The first was basket-haired yeoman named Janice Rand, Captain Kirk’s secretary and part-time love interest. While as a character she was well-liked, the powers-that-be decided Kirk should be the “girl-creature in every port” kind of captain, and, besides, why would anyone need a secretary in the 23rd century? Rand did appear again in the later movies, but for the run of the original series, she just stopped showing up for staff meetings after the first season.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
After the success of the first season, actress Gates McFadden (who played Dr. Crusher) left the show, leaving both her fictional son Wesley behind and her important role vacant. She did come back in the third season, but while she was away the vital position was occupied by Dr. Pulaski, a gruff, no-nonsense doctor who was more like a female Dr. McCoy than a replacement Dr. Crusher. Pulaski was never referred to again on the show, but actress Diana Muldaur went on to join the cast of the hit legal drama “LA Law.”