I used to say that TV shows try not to have the star character in every scene, the way older shows like The Fugitive or The Rockford Files did. Even a show built around its title character, like House or Chuck, will try to work in some kind of subsidiary story thread to give the star some time off; it’s good for the star (because the schedule, while grueling, is not as bad as it could be) and good for the rest of the cast, giving them some scenes where they don’t have to play second banana.
But I’ve noticed that the one-man or one-woman scripted show does seem to be coming back, a little bit. Nurse Jackie, at least at first, has Edie Falco in just about every scene; I brought this up in an interview with the show’s co-creator, Liz Brixius, who said that Falco’s schedule “is so grueling. She is such a champion, I can’t even tell you.”
And I just got season 2 of Burn Notice, watched the season premiere, and was reminded that Jeffrey Donovan is on screen almost non-stop. And on Being Erica, Erin Karpluk is rarely absent from a scene.
It’s not that these characters never under any circumstances get to take a scene off, but the shows are about them and all the other characters are defined by their relationship to the lead character. So it doesn’t pay to keep the hero or heroine offscreen or any length of time; the other characters can’t really sustain a story thread on their own, and aren’t supposed to.
So shows that are absolute, scene-for-scene star vehicles may be on the way back, at least on shows that do 10-13 episodes a season. With a show that does 22 episodes a season, the Rockford Files rule probably still applies: you need to give the star some time off or he or she will be a wreck.