TV Characters Who Suffered from Chuck Cunningham Syndrome

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?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Creative Bar Owners in India Build Maze to Skirt New Liquor Laws
June 20, 2017
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Facing a complicated legal maze, a bar in the southern Indian state of Kerala decided to construct a real one to stay in business, according to The Times of India. Aiswarya Bar, a watering hole that sits around 500 feet from a national highway, was threatened in 2016 after India's Supreme Court banned alcohol sales within 1640 feet of state and country-wide expressways to curb drunk driving. Instead of moving or ceasing operation, Aiswarya Bar's proprietors got creative: They used prefabricated concrete to construct a convoluted pathway outside the entrance, which more than tripled the distance from car to bar.

Aiswarya Bar's unorthodox solution technically adhered to the law, so members of the State Excise Administration—which regulates commodities including alcohol—initially seemed to accept the plan.

"We do [not] measure the aerial distance but only the walking distance," a representative told The Times of India. "However, they will be fined for altering the entrance."

Follow-up reports, though, indicate that the bar isn't in the clear quite yet. Other officials reportedly want to measure the distance between the bar and the highway, and not the length of the road to the bar itself.

Amid all the bureaucratic drama, Aiswarya Bar has gained global fame for both metaphorically and literally circumnavigating the law. But as a whole, liquor-serving establishments in India are facing tough times: As Quartz reports, the alcohol ban—which ordered bars, hotels, and pubs along highways to cancel their liquor licenses by April 1, 2017—has resulted in heavy financial losses, and the estimated loss of over 1 million jobs. Aiswarya Bar's owner, who until recently operated as many as nine local bars, is just one of many afflicted entrepreneurs.

Some state governments, which receive a large portion of their total revenue from liquor sales, are now attempting to downgrade the status of their state and national highways. To continue selling liquor in roadside establishments, they're rechristening thoroughfares as "urban roads," "district roads," and "local authority roads." So far, the jury's still out on whether Kerala—the notoriously heavy-drinking state in which Aiswarya Bar is located—will become one of them.

[h/t The Times of India]