Last week at the Television Critics Association press tour, CBS announced it had made the unique decision to kill off Erinn Hayes’s character from the Kevin James show Kevin Can Wait, in which she played his wife and the mother of his three children. This came on the heels of the network’s announcement several weeks ago that James’ former King of Queens co-star Leah Remini would be replacing Hayes on the show. That little switcheroo sparked a big controversy within the acting community, and as an actor myself, it left a bad taste in my mouth. So, I wanted to use this column to explore this situation a bit more and examine why CBS decided to replace Hayes in such a colossally tone-deaf way? And furthermore, who acted appropriately and inappropriately in their handling of this rather unusual situation?
Let’s start with some background first. Kevin Can Wait is a CBS sitcom created by James, Bruce Helford (The George Lopez Show) and Rock Reuben (The King of Queens). The show is a reunion for CBS and James, who enjoyed a nine-season run of success together with The King of Queens, which debuted in 1998. The show was a consistent hit in the ratings, and is still quite successful in syndication. It was James greatest success as an actor following a successful stand-up career, and it led to numerous film opportunities for him.
King of Queens also brought Leah Remini into mainstream prominence. A noted Scientologist at the time, she had just suffered the cancellation of her NBC show Fired Up and was probably best known for playing Stacey Carosi during a summer season of Saved By The Bell, where I (Editor’s Note: and many others) developed a massive crush on her. The show catapulted her to stardom, and she quickly became a household name.
The King of Queens ended in 2007, and nearly 10 years later, with James a legitimate movie star thanks to a pair of Sony franchises in Grown Ups and Paul Blart: Mall Cop, CBS decided it was time to get back in business with everyone’s favorite UPS (er, IPS) driver. The network launched Kevin Can Wait in September 2016, and the series debuted strongly with 11 million viewers and a 2.58 rating in the 18-49 demographic.
However, by the end of the season, the show had lost almost half of its viewers, with its season finale garnering only 5.68 million viewers and a 1.12 rating in the 18-49 demo. The show was quickly picked up for a second season by CBS, but the network hinted that a creative overhaul was in the works. They weren’t kidding.
The network moved swiftly to fire Hayes, an established comedy actress with an impressive resume comprised of co-starring roles, guest star turns, recurring characters and series regular parts on numerous sitcoms. She has played the wife/girlfriend role on shows like The Winner, Worst Week and Guys With Kids, and she has shined in roles on Parenthood, New Girl and Hulu’s The Hotwives of Las Vegas. But the role she may be best known for is that of Dr. Lola Spratt/Lynn Williams on the brilliantly funny Adult Swim series Childrens Hospital. Clearly, she’s an accomplished sitcom actress with great comedic chops!
So why make the decision to not just replace Hayes on Kevin Can Wait, but do it in a way that will never allow her character to return to the show? Well, if you study the ratings charts as laid out by TVSeriesFinale, you can see that the show was steadily losing viewers and its traction in the 18-49 demo week-by-week. Clearly a drastic creative revamp was necessary if the show had any hope of not repeating the ratings pattern through its second season. Plenty of shows get cancelled midway through their sophomore slump, but since the first season of Kevin Can Wait was already kind of shaky, CBS couldn’t afford to take the chance of that slump continuing.
If you watched any episode of Kevin Can Wait, which I unfortunately had to do for this column, you could tell right away that James and Hayes just don’t have that magic chemistry you need in a successful sitcom. At times, he’s rudely dismissive of her, and there were times where she certainly seemed like someone stuck in an unhappy marriage, which isn’t exactly the vibe you want in a sitcom. That’s not to say that there aren’t some genuinely funny moments between them, because there are. But like any bad relationship, if the genuine moments stand out because they’re all too rare, then it’s time to pull the plug on that relationship.
I have to believe that the network and the show’s creative team saw this as well, which explains why they brought on Leah Remini in a bit of stunt casting late last season. They wanted to court some King of Queens viewers and see how the current Kevin audience responded to her. Well, they loved her. According to Variety, CBS programming boss Thom Sherman confirmed this at the TCA press tour when he said “the chemistry between Kevin and Leah was amazing in the stunt episode we did at the end of last season, and we decided we wanted to continue that.”
If you watch James and Remini in those episodes, Sherman is absolutely right — the two have undeniable chemistry together, and it stands in stark contrast to what little chemistry James shares with Hayes. Movie studios have been playing on our sense of nostalgia for years, so it’s hard to blame for CBS for getting the King of Queens couple back together again, because it makes for enjoyable nostalgia. Their natural rapport must have made CBS’ decision to fire Hayes that much easier as the network cleared a path for Remini to play a new love interest for James’ now-grieving widower. I’m not arguing against this decision, which was made with the best interest of the show in mind. Hayes was not the sole reason the show started slumping last year, but obviously it doesn’t help when your two lead actors don’t have any chemistry.
What rubs me the wrong way is CBS’ extreme decision to kill Hayes off the show. When asked at the same TCA press tour if Hayes would have some say in how her character would be killed off, Sherman said “No, I don’t think so.” And when asked why they made this irreversible decision rather than something less deadly like, you know, a divorce, Sherman said that the producers “talked about other things. Ultimately this was decided…[as] the best way to move forward.” The kids apparently survive, thank God, but how can they yuk it up each week after losing their TV mom?
CBS’ decision and Sherman’s vague explanation seem to speak to something a bit more nefarious going on behind the scenes. How long was this contingency plan in place? CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl denied that it was planned, and assured people that Hayes’ death would be handled “tastefully,” whatever that means. And while the decision to retire her character reminds me of past situations in TV history where actors were killed off shows, the circumstances feel a little different.
Laura Bradley’s piece in Vanity Fair cites numerous examples of actors being killed off their shows because they were supposedly “difficult” to work with. She cites Valerie Harper on Valerie, Katherine Heigl on Grey’s Antomy and Charlie Sheen on Two and Half Men, who got a piano on his head for the troubles he caused the show’s creator, Chuck Lorre. Now, you may agree with some of these decisions and may even agree that some of their public statements prove how “difficult” they actually are, but nothing like that has trickled out about Hayes, or from Hayes about her time on Kevin Can Wait. She has never publicly expressed displeasure, veiled or otherwise, about the show. She even confirmed the news of her firing on Twitter, saying she was “very sad” to be leaving it. And from talking to some of the people who know her in L.A., I understand that she had been looking at houses in Brooklyn, had rented an apartment in Washington Heights, and had made preparations to move her family to New York in order to be closer to the production. So she had every expectation that she was coming back, and must have been blindsided by the rather callous move.
Remini is another interesting piece of this puzzle, and it’s interesting how CBS is choosing to put her front-and-center as a lead on one of their primetime shows in the midst of her public crusade against Scientology, which could be potentially polarizing. On the very day I wrote this column, Remini was making headlines for demanding a federal investigation into Scientology’s “abusive practices,” according to Salon. What kind of blowback will there be to that? What headache awaits CBS on the set of Kevin Can Wait? It’s not like Scientology isn’t known for being aggressive in their pursuit (and alleged stalking) of former Scientologists at their place of work. Radar Online even profiled the stalking Remini encountered on her A&E docuseries Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath in a piece late last year.
I also have to wonder what Remini’s responsibility is to Hayes as a fellow actress, if she has any. We don’t know if Remini was angling for her job, but there haven’t been any reports that she has reached out to Hayes to assure her that she played no role in her dismissal, nor has Remini offered any public sympathy for Hayes’ situation. Should she? As an actor, I understand that this is a business, but I think it would be the right thing to do.
Did Remini agree to guest star knowing it would double as a possible audition to return to primetime as a lead? We can’t know just yet, but we also can’t rule it out. It would be ironic for someone like Remini, who has a whole series profiling how Scientology destroys families and affects people’s emotional and financial stability, to not be sensitive to a fellow actress who lost her job, especially in such a confounding, public way. I mean, I don’t know what Hayes’ contract looks like, but Remini has been there before on King of Queens, so she must know how much money Hayes is losing here, even though by all accounts, she showed up and did the job she was asked to do, like a true professional. Shouldn’t the executives who signed off on her casting be held accountable for their decision too?
In the end, I think this whole situation was handled poorly from the start. It seems like CBS alerted Hayes a little late in the process and overplayed their hand in deciding to kill off her character. That wasn’t the right way to resolve the show’s chemistry issue, and the network could’ve employed a softer hand to deliver its message. And I’m not talking about CBS execs telling the press that Hayes’ performance had nothing to do with the decision, though that also calls into question what Kevin James’ part has been in this casting fiasco.
James has yet to come out publicly and offer support to Hayes, or any positive words about working with her. Is this decision, which as one of the producers he must have signed off on, driven by male ego? Did Hayes challenge some of the childish and inept plotlines on the show, much to James’ chagrin? Is that why they sought to replace her and go in a new “creative direction?” We’ve seen the Adam Sandler comedy boat sinking for some time now as the public’s taste for his infantile comedy changes, and James’ comedy is cut from the same cloth, so that does not bode well for him.
While audiences will undoubtedly now feel sympathy for James’ character on Kevin Can Wait as he processes the loss with his kids, it’s anyone’s guess how long it will take for that emotional manipulation to wear off and audiences’ goodwill runs out. We’ll know soon enough if CBS’ decision to essentially do King of Queens: The Sequel will work. And if it doesn’t, I don’t think killing off your very accomplished and funny leading lady will be the answer next time. No, next time, you might just have to kill off the whole show.
John Steven Rocha is a host, actor and voiceover artist in LA. He currently hosts the Outlaw Nation and The Top 10 podcasts on the SK Plus channel and The Cine-Files podcast on iTunes. When he’s not doing that, he’s winning and losing belts as The Outlaw on the Movie Trivia Schmoedown. Feel free to send him a tweet or Instagram post at @TheRochaSays.