Absence Excuses In TV

As most of you know, How I Met Your Mother has been writing and shooting around the pregnancies of its two female cast members. Tonight’s episode was obviously filmed while Alyson Hannigan was off having her baby, because they came up with an excuse for her not to be in the episode (except for one short scene that was presumably filmed earlier). I thought it worked; having her character refuse to speak to the others because of a dirty, sexist joke was contrived, but so is everything that happens on this show. And her absence  was actually allowed to affect the plot, with Barney bonding with Marshall and Marshall taking on Lily’s usual job as the evil manipulative schemer.

Writing around a temporarily absent character — due to childbirth, illness or a movie — is always tricky. Sometimes a show will just do what HIMYM did tonight and do one scene in advance (or after the rest of the episode is filmed) with the person who’s going to be away, so he or she will at least be in the episode. When Bob Newhart had it in his contract that he could have several weeks off in his final season of The Bob Newhart Show, the writers did episodes that were all about Emily, and Bob was seen only on the phone, talking to Emily about what he was doing at his “psychologist’s conference” or whatever it was supposed to be. That’s a very common and easy-to-spot solution: have the characters say that Missing Person is out of town, or at a conference, and then at some point in the episode he calls in; cut to Missing Person at a pay phone (or, today, cell phone) asking how things are going without him.

But sometimes there’s no time to shoot a separate scene, and the show can simply ignore the missing character and hope we don’t notice. You may remember that Seinfeld did that during one of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s pregnancies, leaving Elaine entirely out of the season opener when the guys went to Los Angeles.

Then there’s the trickiest thing: the episode that is written around a particular character, which then has to be rewritten to compensate for his or her absence. The classic example is the episode of Frasier that was supposed to be about a basketball player deciding that Frasier is his good-luck charm. Before it was to be filmed, Kelsey Grammer went into rehab. So the writers had Niles fill in as host of Frasier’s show, and did the same script with Niles instead of Frasier; after Grammer was back, he filmed a couple of scenes so he wouldn’t be completely absent from the episode.

The Missing Character thing is hardest to deal with for multi-camera sitcoms, because they basically have to have all the performers there for the whole week; it’s easier for shows that can film episodes in bits and pieces. And it’s a lot easier for fantasy shows because they always have the option of turning the lead character into something else. When Sarah Michelle Gellar had to be away from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they covered for her by turning Buffy into a rat (good episode) and invisible (not so good episode). Then there’s the episode of Tom Spezialy and Alan Cross’s Weird Science comedy (guilty pleasure, etc) where Vanessa Angel, the star, was off for a few weeks while she filmed the movie Kingpin, so they did an episode where she was replaced by Abe Vigoda.

We found out our lead actress (Vanessa Angel) had other obligations the week this episode was filming, so we came in and pitched: “What if Lisa (the computer genie) was hacked off the internet and was replaced with image/sound files of an Abe Vigoda-like old man?”

Everyone in the room busted out laughing and the wheels were set in motion.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. How I Met Your Mother. Robin was very pregnant too, but I sort of admire them for pulling off a plot where she had more to do than just sit behind a table. And has anyone done a count of how many episodes have featured someone telling Ted what a douche he is? Even though it doesn’t really redeem the character, it’s always nice to be reminded that the writers know it.

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