Is it Time to Change Actors’ Episode Commitments?

Deadline reports that Chris Meloni will not be reprising his role as Detective Elliot Stabler on the next season NBC’s long-running procedural, LAW & ORDER:SVU Meloni and his phonically-pleasing co-star Mariska Hargitay — who previously announced that she will be scaling back her presence on the show — have anchored the Dick Wolf series for 12 seasons.

This comes after news broke that Lisa Edelstein, one of the two female stars of Fox’s testosterone-leaden medical drama HOUSE, will not return for the show’s eighth and final season. This is a particularly tricky development considering how the show finally consummated her’s and Hugh Laurie’s character’s own Sam and Diane-esque relationship. In fact, Edelstein’s exit wasn’t made official until after the season finale had been shot, so there’s a chance that her character, Lisa Cuddy, will just disappear without a proper goodbye. 

Both actors play pivotal roles in their respective shows: Can they survive without them? In both cases, it doesn’t really matter. HOUSE is ending and SVU, like others in the L&O franchise, shouldn’t have a problem with a cast change. But could this be the beginning of a change of how closely actors’ contracts tie them to their shows? Hopefully. Take Chris Noth’s with CBS’ THE GOOD WIFE as a potential antecedent: He always gets “special guest star” billing in the credits, but by appearing in 14 of the second season’s 23 episodes, you can go ahead and call him recurring. This is actually better, for the show creatively and Noth, who’s made it clear in the past — just like his Mr. Big in SEX AND THE CITY — that he doesn’t like to be tied down. 

A problem faced by network shows with large casts and episodes orders is fatigue. Stretching the narrative over nine months and 22 episodes is creatively challenging even for the best shows (THE GOOD WIFE included, which had its share of duds this season). And while I’m sure being paid for 22 episodes is fine by most actors, we’re beginning to see with Noth and Calista Flockhart (who reduced her role from series regular to recurring on BROTHERS & SISTERS before it was canned) that it might be just as exhaustive a commitment for them, too. 

Could a more cable-like approach be better? Sure, much has been made of how the broadcast nets should have 13 episode seasons: the stories are tighter and better for it. But we might also consider reducing just how many episodes each actor is in during the season. Had Chris Noth’s Peter Florrick been in every episode of the season, then the producers would have had to devote more time to pad out his story, potentially cutting time from far worthier story lines (like Alicia and Kalinda, or Cary at the State’s Attorney’s office). No doubt, Noth’s character is integral to the show (there wouldn’t be a show without him), but he doesn’t need to be in every episode to effectively tell his story; so he isn’t. 

Of course, beyond the show’s main star (you couldn’t have THE GOOD WIFE without Julianna Marguiles every week), most shows could benefit from not being forced to address all of its principal actors in every episode. Not only is it logistically difficult carving out time for every character in every episode, it strains the story and if there are too many plot lines, confuses the viewer. How about leaner seasons that take time to really flesh out a handful of characters? It’s better for us to watch and surely more rewarding for actors to play. And if there are fewer episodes in a season, then ostensibly more shows could be on air in a year; that’s more opportunities for acting.

But these high-profile actor exits put the spotlight squarely on an obvious issue: payment. For everyone to be a little happier, there needs to be changes to attitude along with structural adjustments. Future actors might need to accept that their money might not be coming from just one series regular TV gig; it might be from multiple. Will TV networks let this fly? (You’ll remember the trouble Neil Patrick Harris ran into when he wanted to guest star on GLEE last year.) For now, I’d likely receive a flippant, yeah, right; but if network TV continues down its current path, I wouldn’t be surprised if we could downgrade that response to a speculative maybe.

Aleks Chan is a writer and editor living in Austin, Texas. You can email him at or follow him on Twitter (@aleksnotalex).

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  • I’ve always wondered why they don’t have contracts that extend 1 or 2 episodes past the current season, so if they can’t agree on a new contract, the actor has already agreed to show up to be written off.

  • very true.

  • John

    If the actor is committed to a couple episodes for the next season it would make it difficult for them to get a new show since the filming would overlap.  This would make them more locked into their current show and they would demand more money for this restriction.

    Also there are legal restrictions on the length of a contract – I think it is 7 years.  And for series regualrs they are normally already locked up for 7 years.

  • Toast92682

    Stop being cry babies. 22 episodes a year is not bad. Look at the old shows where they did anywhere from 33-39. Get out there and earn your money. Now we get no proper send off for Stabler. IDIOTS.

  • A change in main characters might be WINNINGGGGGGG!