(I pledge to make it through this entire piece without mention of the phrase “Jump the Shark”. Starting… now!)
A late addition to the cast of a long-running sitcom is usually a sign that the show has shit the bed. There aren’t many worse examples of Idea Bankruptcy than by saying, for instance, “Jeremy Miller was a cute Ben Seaver, but I’m not loving this new Adam’s Apple thing he’s got going. How about if Jason knocks up Maggie?” Yeah, those are Growing Pains references- if I lost you there, this could be a bumpy ride.
Anyway, we thus get “the new addition,” Chrissy Seaver. And when that didn’t work? Add troubled orphan Luke (played by one Leonardo DiCaprio). I think most of us were fine with Mike, Carol and Ben, but someone decided Growing Pains needed some sprucing up. And the list goes on, with Cousin Oliver from The Brady Bunch perhaps being the most famous example of shitty new addition to an aging cast.
OK, so most of the time it doesn’t work. But what happens when it does? When someone is added late to a cast and not only fits in, but DOES re-energize the show, cast, or both?
It happens from time to time, and I have a list of my picks for the best. But before getting into that, the question: why these characters? Why do they work, but Raven-Symone could only be a poor man’s Rudy, even on her best day?
I think all of my picks are examples generated from story rather than demographics. The ones that don’t work seem to all be created exclusively because the creators (or TV executives, I guess) thought that something about the show needed fixing. Maybe a once-cute actor was getting long in the tooth (see Cosby Show, Growing Pains, Happy Days, Diff’rent Strokes) or the plot calls for a character to become pregnant (see Family Ties, Growing Pains again,).
But when good writers create good stories, new characters are oftentimes called for. And when they come into the fold in this way, they usually have a bit more staying power.
So who are the best? As always, a bit of criteria to narrow the possibilities:
- Must have been added no earlier than the second season of a show.
- Can’t be replacing a departing cast member (so no Woody or Rebecca on Cheers).
- Can’t be a one season guest star (no Lithgow from Dexter, Forrest Whitaker from The Shield).
With that, here we go. Before we get to my top five, here are some honorable mentions:
Tiffani Amber Thiessen as Valerie Malone (Beverly Hills 90210):
She was sort of replacing the departing Shannon Doherty, so she can’t be included. But I did want to mention her, as those Brenda-sized shoes were hard to fill, and she took the show in a new direction. When she sparked up that joint at the end of her first episode, we all knew this was not our father’s 90210.
JB Smoove as Leon Black (Curb Your Enthusiasm): Larry David does a good job of shaking things up in his fake life, and my favorite recent thing he did was to open his doors to an African-American family of Katrina survivors. All of them are now gone, but David (smartly) kept Leon Black around. Aside from Jeff Garland, JB Smoove is the best foil to the TV version of Larry David.
Scott Baio as Charles “Chachi” Arcola (Happy Days): Again, not a particularly innovative choice to replace the increasingly aging and thusly increasingly creepy Fonz (especially since the Fonz never went anywhere), but it would be remiss of me to not mention Chachi. After all, the character turned Scott Baio into a teen sex symbol, paving the way for Charles in Charge, Zapped, and Joanie Loves Chachi (not to mention appearances on Arrested Development and his award-winning role on the Afterschool Special, Stoned. Anyone remember Stoned? Anyone?). Clearly, Chachi is a gateway drug to later success.
But the best? Here they are, in descending order:
5. James Marster as Spike (Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel):
True, he eventually became a pussified shadow of himself (before briefly rallying in the final season of Angel), but when Spike first appeared in season 2 of Buffy, it wasn’t long before it was clear that he was someone who was a breakout character in the Buffy universe. And that is exactly why his entry into the established universe was a success; Joss Whedon was very careful about slowly expanding the borders of the world he created, and the character of Spike came about as a way to broaden the mythology (and act as a counterpoint to the brooding Angel). He was funny, vicious, and just plain awesome. For a while, anyway.
4. Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris as Frank and Estelle Constanza (Seinfeld):
Again, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld were very careful about who received an recurring invitation to the wacky universe that was Seinfeld. Most of these characters were only on sporadically, but George’s parents proved to be far too valuable to parcel out so sparingly. Not only were they unique comic creations, matching any of the regular four cast members in terms of pure funny, but they actually served to show how George became George.
3. Michael Emerson as Ben Linus (Lost):
By the time Ben Linus first appeared on Lost, the show was kinda sorta in trouble. Audiences were getting tired of being jerked around by the mysterious “Others”- we were ready to get some concrete “bad guys” to root against. The great thing about Ben was that he never actually became that “bad guy.” Yes, he committed some pretty terrible acts (a jihad against the entire Dharma Initiative, killing Locke at least two times), but Emerson was able to get viewers to always question his true motives. Ben Linus was the catalyst that got many a Lost fan back into the show, and provided the missing link that eventually led to the end of the show.
2. Ed Helms as Andy Bernard (The Office):
Does this feel a little high on the list to you? I love me my Ed Helms, and he is the primary reason that I keep watching The Office. His character arrived in the great Stamford transfer, and he was the only one who stuck around. A bit of a caricature at first, Helms has since been able to flesh him out a bit. Gone are his fits of rage, and in their place are now an awkward sweetness combined with misplaced confidence in acapella, banjo music, and Cornell University.
1. Kelsey Grammar as Frasier Crane (Cheers & Frasier):
Easy. There has never been a more successful spin-off character in the history of TV, has there? What started as a character designed to be a “male version of Diane Chambers” on Cheers developed into one of the show’s very best and most interesting characters. I would put his relationship arc with Lillith on that show as one of most involving, funny, touching, and ultimately sort of sad things the show has ever done. When he broke off onto his own show, I didn’t have high hopes, as The Tortellis was still fresh in my mind. But Frasier lasted 11 years (as long as Cheers lasted), and the interplay between his family (especially his brother Niles) made for a completely different, and in some ways, better show.