by Patrick Hildebrandt
What happens when certain characters on an otherwise successful show just don't connect with an audience? They're often written out and given a dignified and acknowledged farewell. But some characters are so unlucky that they are sentenced to the grimmest of all TV deaths: Chuck Cunningham Syndrome, where a character simply disappears, and their absence is never acknowledged and the other characters continue on as if nothing has happened.
Let's take a look at some prominent examples of this phenomenon—starting, naturally, with the character who started it all.
Happy Days — Chuck Cunningham
If ever there was a poster child of TV character disappearances, it would be poor Chuck Cunningham (Gavan O'Herlihy / Randolph Roberts). Before Al Molinaro ran Arnold's, before Joanie loved Chachi, and before the Fonz jumped over a fake shark and into television lore, there was Chuck. He was originally the third and eldest child of the Cunningham brood, a basketball player at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Chuck was supposed to be the series' older brother, but unlike siblings Ritchie and Joanie, he was generally superfluous to the series happenings, and he usually only appeared while en route to someplace else, such as basketball practice. His character never caught on the way Arthur Fonzarelli did, so when producers decided to focus more on the Fonz, the unimportant Chuck was written out of the series.
His removal certainly didn't hurt the show, as Happy Days ran for nine more years and earned its place as one television's greatest sitcoms. But Chuck's disappearance was never explained, and aside from a few passing comments, he was never mentioned again. His departure was so shocking and confounding to fans that they named this TV phenomenon after him. He wasn't the first, but he is the most prominent example.
Family Matters — Judy Winslow
Remember when Family Matters was a solid show about the working-class Winslow family in Chicago? Neither do I, because that original premise was quickly hijacked by Steve Urkel. The obnoxious, accident-prone, cheese-loving, nasally-voiced antagonist quickly became one of the biggest stars of the 90s, and the show began to focus on him and his exploits, much to the detriment of other family members.
One of those members was Judy Winslow (Jaimee Foxworth), originally the third and youngest of the Winslow clan. As the show moved towards Urkel, Judy, who was never that popular and was rarely featured, was given the axe after the fourth season. Family Matters continued to run for four more seasons, but Urkel's increasingly strained and improbable antics eventually sank it. As for Foxworth, she later ended up broke and became a porn actress. She seems to have rebounded somewhat; during a 2006 appearance on Oprah she spoke openly about her experiences and her desire to help other young women avoid her mistakes.
That "˜70s Show — Tina Pinciotti
Most fans of That "˜70s Show would consider Donna Pinciotti, Eric Foreman's formidable friend/love interest, to be an only child. And they'd be mostly correct, since that's how she was portrayed for most of the series' run. But in the first season, Donna had a younger sister, Tina (Amanda Fuller). She appeared in one episode and was promptly never seen or heard from again, aside from a cliffhanger-like voiceover ending to a season two episode: "And whatever happened to Midge's daughter Tina? Confused? You won't be, after the next episode of That '70s Show!"
That "˜70s Show has drawn a lot of comparisons to Happy Days, and it's been suggested that Tina's disappearance was an intentional homage to Chuck Cunningham. The producers apparently weren't satisfied, because Donna also at one time had an older sister, Valerie. She was mentioned once, but never seen on camera, and never mentioned again. Donna's suddenly sister-less existence has provided ample fodder for hardcore fans. And, for some of us, a desire to do that to our own siblings.
Saved By the Bell — Too numerous to mention
Yes, even our favorite pantheon to high school isn't immune. In fact, Saved By the Bell's sins are more plentiful than any other show on this list. In the first season, junior high schoolers Zack Morris, Screech Powers and Lisa Turtle played second fiddle to a teacher character, Carrie Bliss (Hayley Mills). When the characters graduate to full-fledged high school, Bliss is gone, along with fellow teachers Tina Paladrino (Joan Ryan) and Milo Williams (T.K. Carter). And the additions of A.C. Slater, Jessie Spano and Kelly Kapowski resulted in unexplained demises for former friends Nikki Coleman (Heather Hopper) and Mikey Gonzalez (Max Battimo).
It's not simply a matter of changing schools, since ever-vigilant principal Mr. Belding remained on board. The real explanation is a fascinating case study of television production. The junior high/Carrie Bliss episodes were actually from a completely different show: Good Morning, Miss Bliss, created in 1988 and seen on the Disney Channel. The show was canceled after 13 episodes, but NBC thought the idea had merit and repackaged it as Saved By the Bell, shifting the focus to the teens and tinkering with the cast.
This wouldn't even be a matter for debate if NBC didn't consider Miss Bliss part of the Saved By the Bell canon; they even brazenly include those episodes in the syndication package, re-titling them Saved By the Bell and using the same classic theme song. The result is a show that's promoted as one seamless whole, but features some jarring character and continuity problems between the first season and the other four—most notably, the inexplicable location switch from dreary Indiana to sunny California. We'll save The Tori Paradox for another weekend.
Surely there are other characters who went missing that escaped our attention completely. Do you know of one?