Why Returning Shows Like Kevin Can Wait Got Extreme Makeovers This Fall

Networks hope cast and story changes boost ratings, woo advertisers

Leah Remini has replaced Erinn Hayes as a cast regular for Season 2 of Kevin Can Wait on CBS. CBS
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This season, several returning series feel more like brand new shows, after undergoing significant casting and storyline overhauls to give their ratings a jolt. Kevin James’ CBS sitcom Kevin Can Wait added Leah Remini as a cast regular for Season 2, reuniting him with his King of Queens spouse—and killing off his new TV wife (Erinn Hayes) to make room.

Season 7 of Once Upon a Time features a complete storyline reboot and the departure of six cast members, including stars Jennifer Morrison and Ginnifer Goodwin. And when NBC’s Taken—a prequel to the Liam Neeson films—returns in midseason for its second year, it will have jettisoned six regulars, with only Clive Standen (who plays the younger Neeson) and Jennifer Beals returning.

Big cast changes are a regular part of television—like when Ashton Kutcher successfully stepped in for Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men in 2011—but buyers approach each series upheaval differently. “You have to look at what the replacement is. It really depends on the casting. For me, that’s the best way to make a decision,” said Carrie Drinkwater, svp, group director of investment activation, MullenLowe Mediahub. “George Clooney left ER, and it went on for many years without him. There certainly is life after a lead character goes.”

"You have to look at what that replacement is. It really depends on the casting."
Carrie Drinkwater, svp, group director of investment activation, Mediahub

Drinkwater applauded Remini’s addition to Kevin Can Wait, noting that she and James “have great chemistry,” which made CBS take notice when she guested on the show last year. “Everybody looked at each other and said, ‘This was neat, and gave the show a real jolt of energy.’ Between Kevin and the producers, it was something people wanted to recreate going forward,” said CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl. “That necessitated a tough decision” regarding Hayes’ firing, but the idea to flash-forward a year “lets us move forward fairly quickly.” So far, it’s worked out just as CBS had hoped: Kevin Can Wait’s Season 2 premiere drew 10.3 million viewers, and a 2.3 rating in the 18-49 demo, better than all but its first two episodes last season.

NBC is hoping a similar change to Taken can reset that show for the long haul as well. The title “means something to a lot of people,” said NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt, who loved his two leads, but “we all said, let’s get rid of these characters that are holding the show back and rejigger it. And you still have the essence of the show.” With only 10 Taken episodes aired so far, “you’re still figuring out what the show is,” added Greenblatt, who helped develop The X-Files and recalled, “it took us 22 episodes to figure out what that show was.”

Buyers are more cynical about the prospects of ABC’s Once Upon a Time’s reboot so late in its run. “It’s dead in the water,” said one. “The ratings were dying, and when you have to retool a program that much, it’ll be a Friday-night program”—its new home this season—“and then it will be gone.”

Last season, Fox attempted a similar—and unsuccessful—overhaul of Sleepy Hollow. “It’s pretty rare that you’re just trying to squeeze another year out of a show” with a big cast overhaul, said Fox Television Group chairman and CEO Gary Newman. “We have a longer-term view than that. We’re looking for our shows to be long-running assets. When we make a change, it’s because we’re looking to infuse a new energy or dynamic that will extend the lifespan of these shows.”

That is what Once’s co-creator Adam Horowitz is hoping to pull off with his show’s reboot, which has been in the works for a year. “Like anything that is successful, it’s a risk,” he said. “If it works, this show could go on for another six years. If it doesn’t, we’ll wrap it up, and seven years is a great run.”

This story first appeared in the Oct. 9, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.