The show must go on. (This is your spoiler warning.) Nashville said goodbye to Connie Britton, but the show is far from over, its creative team wants you to know that.
"Shows always move forward. Grey's Anatomy moved forward. Thirtysomething moved forward after Gary died. This is such a rich cast and such a rich group of characters there's so many great stories to tell," executive producer Marshall Herskovitz told EW.
Britton's presence will be felt, via flashbacks, and stories about how the other characters are dealing with loss. "But the show of Nashville is a world, it's not about one person. As great as Connie is and Rayna was, it was never just one person. What people will find as they process their feelings—and maybe fans will be angry at us or at her for this happening—but they'll find the fabric of the show more than holds," Herskovitz said.
As Herskovitz said, Nashville is far from the first show to move along after its lead character said goodbye. Sometimes it works, other times—well, it doesn't. TV has a rich history of this, and not just on the drama side.
Generally, the exits happen as the show is getting long in the tooth because of contracts. Actors are usually signed for five to seven seasons with their original contracts. However, there are exceptions. Take the 1980s sitcom The Hogan Family for example. Originally titled Valerie, the show starred Valerie Harper as a mother juggling career and family life, but Harper left the show after the second season over a dispute with producers. Valerie became The Hogan Family and the show ran for another four seasons.
Charlie Sheen's famous Two and a Half Men implosion and exit in season eight barely left a scratch on the CBS comedy. Ashton Kutcher was added to the cast opposite Jon Cryer during season nine and the series went on for another four years, wrapping with season 12. Sheen's character came back at one point, portrayed in ghost form by Kathy Bates.
Steve Carell's exit on The Office was a different story. Carell's Michael Scott was the heart of the show. A series of big name actors came in to help fill the void in fun guest spots after he exited in season seven, including Will Ferrell, Ray Romano, James Spader, Jim Carrey and Catherine Tate. Ratings dipped after Carell left and the show felt…different. He returned for the ninth season in the series finale in a surprise cameo.
That ‘70s Show lost Topher Grace and Kutcher following season seven. Kutcher would recur in season eight, the show's last, and Grace appeared as a guest star in the final season like Ron Howard before him in Happy Days. Howard left Happy Days after season seven. The show went on until season 11 where he returned in a guest spot. Laverne & Shirley, a Happy Days spinoff, only lasted for less than one season with just Penny Marshall playing Laverne. Cindy Williams, Shirley, left the show—and got into a legal dispute with producers—during season eight. Shirley fell in love, got married and found out she pregnant over the course of two episodes and left to join her new husband overseas. Laverne soldiered on for 20 more episodes.
The drama world of TV usually has more shifts, thanks in part to ensemble nature of most dramas. As Herskovitz cited, Grey's Anatomy has gone through a number of exits, from Katherine Heigl to Sandra Oh and Patrick Dempsey. Dempsey's McDreamy, like Britton's Rayna Jaymes on Nashville, died. Shonda Rhimes' reason for killing Dempsey's character was similar to why Herskovitz said Nashville killed Rayna.
"The decision to have the character die the way that he did was not a difficult one in the sense of what were the options?" Rhimes said at the 2015 Summer TCA. "Either Derek was going to walk out on Meredith [Ellen Pompeo], and leave her high and dry, and what was that going to mean? That was going to suggest that the love was not true, the thing we had said for 11 years was a lie and McDreamy wasn't McDreamy. For me, that was untenable."
But sometimes death doesn't stick. The original Dallas, which was a TV event in the 1970s and 1980s, said goodbye to Patrick Duffy in the season eight finale. His character, Bobby Ewing, died and was completely absent for season nine. The series showed no signs of slowing down and then in a twist, Duffy returned as Bobby in season 10—the ninth season was just a dream. Dallas weathered a number of casting shakeups throughout its 14 season run. And then on more grounded shows, the death sticks.
The Good Wife lost its romantic lead when Josh Charles' Will Gardner was gunned down in the middle of season five. The show kept the death pretty much a secret, which in the day of social media is impressive. The Good Wife, which starred Julianna Margulies, wrapped after seven seasons.
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Margulies' other famous drama, ER, which lasted 16 seasons, had a rotating door of cast members. By the time it ended, the entire original cast was gone. Sherry Stringfield was the first to bolt in season three—she later returned in season eight and then left again in season 12—followed by George Clooney in season five. Margulies left in season six, Anthony Edwards and Eriq La Salle hung on until season eight. Noah Wyle continued through season 11 and returned in guest star spots and recurred in the final season.
Law & Order: SVU, another ensemble drama, only has Mariska Hargitay left from the original cast. For 12 seasons the show followed Hargitay's Benson and Christopher Meloni's Stabler. Meloni left after season 12 due when contract negotiations broke down. His exit happened off screen, Stabler retired after a precinct shooting, with the show eventually adding new characters and shifting the main focus to Hargitay's Benson, her career and personal life. Season 18 is currently airing now. Law & Order, the mothership version, wrapped its 20th season without an original cast member left. S. Epatha Merkerson and Sam Waterston did the longest stints. Merkerson joined in season four and stayed until the end, while Waterston joined in season five and stayed until the end. Another police drama, NYPD Blue, saw its fair share of exits as well, most notably David Caruso.
Caruso won a Golden Globe for his work in the first season of NYPD Blue, but he left after just four episodes into season two after a salary dispute. The show went on until season 12. Dennis Franz was the only actor to stick with it through the end.
Nashville isn't called Rayna Jaymes, as Herskovitz said, and there remains a world of characters for them to play with. TV history proves there's life after death for most shows, but success depends on a variety of factors: writing, remaining cast and audience loyalty. Nashville was already canceled once—Rayna Jaymes' death could be the end of the show's rebirth. Only time will tell.