Casting shakeups are nothing new for television shows; actors may decide to depart for any number of reasons. However, depending on the series and the character, those absences can be felt long after the actor has left.
Ensemble comedies — where the chemistry and interplay between characters are integral — are especially vulnerable. When a key character leaves, it can have a destabilizing effect which the show might sometimes compensate for by adding new characters or somehow shaking up the premise.
But, even if the show successfully navigates that loss and presses on for more seasons, something will always feel slightly off. “Cheers,” despite its impressive 11-season run, never felt the same after Shelley Long’s departure at the end of season five. Nothing the show did — the addition of Kirstie Alley, the promotion of Kelsey Grammar to series regular, even more, Bebe Neuwirth — worked to regain the spark and wit Long’s character brought to the show.
Likewise, “Community” struggled to fill the void left by Donald Glover when he quit the show midway through season five. That show lived and died by its ensemble cast — each character brought a unique perspective and energy, which made for unexpected and exciting character pairings. Without Glover, the show lacked the goofy innocence his character injected into the show; it was darker and less joyful without him. (Fewer tears were shed over Chevy Chase — who, by all accounts, was a monster behind the scenes — when he, too, exited the show during season five.)
When Glenn Howerton announced he would not be returning as a series regular for the 13th season of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” it, too, felt like a blow from which the raunchy FXX sitcom could not recover.
Howerton, who plays the narcissistic creep Dennis Reynolds, also stars in the NBC sitcom “AP Bio,” which has been picked up for a second season. While juggling two shows understandably seemed like a tall order, Howerton had also indicated he may be ready to move on from “Sunny.”
At the time, it seemed like the beginning of the end for the series. It’s impossible to imagine the show without Dennis, the arch, mean-spirited antagonist of the Gang. The show even went as far as to write Dennis off the show at the close of season 12, when he decided to move to North Dakota to raise a child with a woman he unknowingly impregnated in a previous season.
Indeed, the premiere episode of season 13 tackles his absence head-on. In a bit of stunt casting, Mindy Kaling’s Cindy has replaced Dennis as the Gang’s chief schemer, with her plan to boost business at Paddy’s Pub by stoking liberal and conservative outrage in equal measure. It’s the type of cynical scheme we’ve come to expect from this crew of self-serving misanthropes.
Mac, meanwhile, fills the Dennis-shaped void with a Dennis-shaped sex doll he lugs around with him. By episode’s end, the real Dennis has returned.
It seems rumors of Howerton’s departure were greatly exaggerated. While he isn’t in every episode, he appears in a majority of the season’s 10 episodes.
For a show so long in the teeth, the new season still pops with chaotic and comedic energy as it satirically comments on current events, including politics, #MeToo, gender-neutral bathrooms and the representation of women in media.
The show’s trademark weirdness is still in full effect as they tackle these issues through the lens of TV’s most twisted and depraved cast of characters. As always, it’s entertaining to see the full Gang together bickering and shrieking at each other. In addition to Howerton, Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, Caitlin Olson and Danny DeVito all have such a strong line on these characters at this point that even a grunt from Frank or a flex of Mac’s biceps — spoiler: he’s super ripped now — can get laughs.
With the announcement “Sunny” has been renewed for a 14th season — putting it even with “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” as the longest-running live-action sitcom (in a number of seasons) in history — the Gang isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. If they keep delivering seasons like this one, that’s great news.