Even ensemble shows tend to rest on the back of one or two core characters. Without its lead, the series wouldn't be the same.
Sometimes, however, the lead actor decides to walk away from the show, or the studio decides to cut them loose. Then, it’s up to the showrunners to figure out how to move forward with the series (if it doesn’t end up being canceled).
Here are 17 TV shows that wrote off the main character but kept going:
Warning: Some entries mention abuse and eating disorders.
1. Anna Faris played Christy Plunkett on Mom for seven seasons, but she left abruptly before production began on Season 8.
Why she left: "To pursue new opportunities."
How she was written off: Christy got a full scholarship to Georgetown Law School, so she moved to Washington, DC.
In a statement, she said, "The past seven years on Mom have been some of the most fulfilling and rewarding of my career...I’ll be watching next season and rooting for my TV family."
However, her decision was reportedly "sudden and unwelcome" for the network, and the show was canceled after only one season without her.
2. America Ferrera planned to leave her role as Amy Sosa on Superstore after five seasons — but due to COVID-19-related production shutdowns, her story arc spilled over into the first few episodes of Season 6.
Why she left: To focus on "the next chapter for [her] family and career."
How she was written off: Amy left her Cloud 9 store to work for corporate in California.
She told Variety, "My wish for the show was that it just continued on and on and on and kept on going and that I could start pursuing some of the other creative endeavors that I had been building towards and that I’m starting to do now."
However, after her departure, the show wasn't renewed for another season. She returned briefly in the final episode.
3. In 2019, Ruby Rose did not return to their role as Kate Kane on Batwoman after only one season, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, their allergy to the latex costume, and a serious on-set injury as reasons for leaving.
Why they left: Pandemic, allergies, injuries, and alleged unfair treatment on set.
How they were written off: Kate Kane disappeared after a plane crash, but her suit was recovered by Ryan Wilder.
However, in 2021, she came forward with the full story. Addressing the CW on her Instagram story, she wrote, "I will come for you so what happened to me never happens to another person again — and so I can finally take back my life and the truth. Shame on you."
In a series of Instagram Stories, they described sexual harassment, serious injuries, and other unfair treatment they and others experienced on set.
She also emphasized that she didn't quit the show. She said, "I wouldn't return for any amount of money nor if a gun were to my head."
In a statement to BuzzFeed, Warner Bros. Television Group said, "Despite the revisionist history that Ruby Rose is now sharing online aimed at the producers, the cast and crew, the network, and the Studio, the truth is that Warner Bros. Television had decided not to exercise its option to engage Ruby for season two of Batwoman based on multiple complaints about workplace behavior that were extensively reviewed and handled privately out of respect for all concerned."
Javicia Leslie joined the cast as Ryan Wilder, Batwoman's successor, and the part of Kate Kane was played by Wallis Day during Season 2.
4. Roseanne Barr played Roseanne Harris-Conner on Roseanne from 1988–1997 then returned for the series revival in 2018. However, she was fired after posting a racist tweet.
Why she left: Her racist comment lead to her firing and the revival's cancellation.
How she was written off: The character died after an opioid overdose.
Announcing the show's cancellation, ABC Entertainment President Channing Dungey said that her post was "abhorrent, repugnant, and inconsistent with our values."
However, the story wasn't over for the rest of the cast. ABC retooled the show as The Connors — a spin-off centered on Roseanne's daughter Darlene.
5. Topher Grace played Eric Forman on That '70s Show for seven seasons, but landing roles in movies like Ocean's Eleven, Traffic, and Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! inspired him to leave.
Why he left: He wanted to pursue more movie roles.
How he was written off: Eric moved to Africa to be a teacher for a year so he could earn a full college scholarship.
Initially, the network planned to recast Josh Meyers as Eric, but they worried that would upset fans of the show. So, they introduced Meyers as a completely new character, Randy Pearson, to fill the void Eric left behind.
The show only lasted for one more season after Grace's departure. However, he returned for the series finale. He's also set to reprise his role in the spin-off That '90s Show.
6. Demi Lovato starred on Sonny With A Chance as Sonny Munroe for two seasons before severing ties with Disney Channel altogether.
Why they left: After checking out of rehab, they wanted to address their experience with an eating disorder and how "normalized" it seemed to be in the entertainment industry.
How they were written off: Their absence was not addressed.
They told Bustle, "I came out of [rehab] with the choice of talking about my struggles or my journey with the possibility of helping people, or keeping my mouth shut and going back to Disney Channel...I was like that doesn't feel authentic to me. So I chose to tell my story."
The show was reworked into the spin-off So Random, which made the fictional sketch comedy show from the original series a reality. Sonny was replaced by her former nemesis/love interest Chad Dylan Cooper (played by Sterling Knight), but the show never addressed why.
So Random only aired for one season before its cancellation.
7. Zach Braff played lead character and narrator J.D. Dorian on Scrubs for eight seasons. However, when the show switched networks after the writers' strike, he began to feel that it was time to move on. He only stayed on for the show's first season with ABC.
Why he left: He had "a lot of things" he wanted to do that were difficult "when you're so married to a show."
How he was written off: J.D. accepted a new job and moved away so he could be closer to his son.
For Season 9, the show's focus pivoted to a new group of medical interns, with Lucy Bennett (played by Kery Bishé) taking over as protagonist and narrator. Scrubs was canceled after the much-maligned season.
Years later, Braff joked with a fan who asked how many seasons his show Alex Inc. would have, tweeting, "9, but we will only acknowledge the first 8."
8. Chad Michael Murray played Lucas Scott on One Tree Hill for six seasons before leaving over salary disputes.
Why he left: He didn't think he was being paid enough.
How he was written off: After the birth of their child, Lucas and Peyton left Tree Hill.
In an infamous YouTube video, he told fans, "They're not bringing me back next year...because they want to save money."
"See, this is what all the fans should do online, is start blogging and being pissed off that they don't want that. That's what they should do," he also said.
The show continued for three more seasons, and Murray briefly returned in Season 9.
9. Hilarie Burton, who played Peyton Sawyer, also left One Tree Hill after Season 6 — and she credited costar Moira Kelly for helping her find the strength to leave.
Why she left: In 2017, Burton and 17 other female cast, crew, and writers shared a letter detailing the verbal abuse, sexual abuse, and misconduct that series creator Mark Schwahn inflicted on them.
How she was written off: After giving birth, Peyton left to travel with Lucas and their baby.
On her podcast, Drama Queens, Burton detailed a conversation she had with Kelly, saying, "In [my] last episode of the show, everyone in my world was telling me, 'You can't leave.' You came and you sat next to me. You started off by just joking. You were like, 'What's going on?' I was like, 'I don't know what to do,' and you said, 'Run!'"
She continued, "You said, 'There are so many chapters in life and this is just one.' You were the only person that gave me permission to go. I so valued your opinion of me and of our business, and the way you prioritized your family over work. That's what I wanted."
After Burton and Murray's joint departure, Clay Evans and Quinn James (played by Robert Buckley and Shantel VanSanten) were introduced as replacements.
10. Mischa Barton played Marissa Cooper on The O.C. for three seasons, but she didn't discuss her exact reasons for leaving until 15 years later.
Why she left: She felt overworked, experienced bullying on set, and wanted to pursue film roles.
How she was written off: After a car accident, Marissa died in Ryan Atwood's arms.
She told E! News, "Halfway through Season 2 I would say, when we started doubling up on episodes and shooting [became] so much harder...I just didn't feel I could keep going."
Production gave her a choice — "Do you want your job and to sail off into the sunset and potentially you can come back in the future in some bizarre TV scenario, or we can kill your character off and you can go on with your career that you want and what you want to do?"
She felt that leaving "was the best thing for [her] and [her] health and just in terms of not really feeling protected by [her] cast and crew at that point."
The O.C. was canceled one season after her departure.
11. George Clooney played Dr. Doug Ross on ER for five seasons before deciding to leave his TV career behind.
Why he left: To focus on his burgeoning film career.
How he was written off: Following a scandal that nearly ended his medical career, Doug resigned from his job at County General Hospital and moved to Seattle.
At the time, giving up his successful TV gig to pursue success on the silver screen was considered a huge career risk.
Following Clooney's exit, the show continued for ten more seasons. He briefly returned in Season 15.
12. Steve Carell initially signed on to Michael Scott on The Office for seven seasons, and as the deadline approached, he was the only cast member who didn't renegotiate his contract.
Why he left: His contract expired.
How he was written off: He moved to Colorado to help his fiancé Holly Flax take care of her parents.
On the An Oral History of The Office podcast, editor and director Claire Scanlon said, "Steve said he would have come back, they didn’t even try!"
"I feel like NBC dropped the ball because I knew the story behind it, which was they just never even bothered, which was just, like, so dumb. I don’t know what was wrong with them," she continued.
Upon Michael's exit Deangelo Vickers (played by Will Ferrell) took over as Dunder Mifflin's regional manager. The show continued for two more seasons, and Carell made a surprise return at Dwight Schrute's wedding in the finale.
13. Mitchel Musso played Brady on Pair of Kings for two seasons. He reportedly signed a deal with Disney that would allow him to stay on the show for another before transitioning to more mature roles — until he was arrested and immediately fired.
Why he was fired: At 20, he was arrested for a DUI.
How he was written off: In the Season 3 premiere, Brady overheard his crush Mikayla call him immature, so he left the island he co-ruled with his brother and moved back to Chicago.
After his DUI arrest, he was replaced by Adam Hicks, who played Brady's long-lost triplet Boz.
The show was canceled after Season 3.
14. Shannen Doherty spent three seasons playing Prue Halliwell on Charmed, but she left amid reports that she was feuding with costar Alyssa Milano behind the scenes.
Why she left: "There was too much drama on the set and not enough passion for the work."
How she was written off: Prue was killed by the demonic assassin Shax in the Season 3 finale.
She told Entertainment Tonight, "I'm 30 years old, and I don't have time for drama in my life anymore."
In Season 4, Rose McGowan joined the cast as Paige Matthews, the Halliwells' half-sister. The show ran until Season 8.
15. Though his character was originally supposed to die at the end of Season 1, Travis Fimmel played the warrior-turned-king Ragnar Lodbrok on Vikings for four seasons.
Why he left: Series creator Michael Hirst never intended to keep Ragnar around for the entire show and planned to have the storyline follow his sons.
How he was written off: He died after being tossed into a pit of poisonous snakes.
He told Rotten Tomatoes, "I thought I’d never do [a TV series] again. I wasn’t interested." However, he moved on to the drama Raised by Wolves.
Fimmel briefly cameoed in Season 5 in a vision Björn (played by Alexander Ludwig) had of his father. The series continued to follow the adventures of Ragnar's sons until Season 6.
16. Nina Dobrev initially signed a six-year contract to star on The Vampire Diaries as Elena Gilbert, and she never planned to stay any longer than that.
Why she left: Only staying for six seasons was "the plan from the get-go."
How she was written off: A spell that linked Elena and Bonnie made it so that only one of them could remain awake, so Elena decided to let Bonnie be the one to live out her life.
She told Self, "I've loved working on this show. It's been such a crazy, awesome adventure, and I've been surrounded by so many people who I consider family...it's going to be so strange not to be with them."
For its final two seasons, the show focused on the remaining characters. Dobrev briefly returned to give Elena her happily-ever-after in Season 8.
17. And finally, Cindy Williams played Shirley Feeney on Laverne & Shirley — a spin-off of Happy Days — until the second episode of Season 8.
Why she left: She was pregnant in real life, and production refused to accommodate the schedule changes she needed.
How she was written off: Shirley moved away after getting married.