NEW YORK (AP) - Instability, even unrest. Major changes at the top. Uncertainty for the future.
No, I'm not talking about the tumultuous Mideast. I'm talking about a pair of popular comedies whose longtime stars have exited with no clear sign of who will replace them.
If you hadn't heard, Charlie Sheen was fired last month from CBS' "Two and a Half Men." There will be no more new episodes of "Men" this season. Meanwhile, the show's producers ponder whether to bring back the show minus Sheen for its ninth season (which seems a no-brainer) and, if they do, which actor to sign who can best fill Sheen's shoes.
Steve Carell, a different sort of fellow who has never once claimed to be a warlock or headlined a "Torpedo of Truth" concert tour, is departing "The Office" under much more cordial terms.
As long ago as last spring, Carell was broadly hinting at plans to leave the NBC comedy after this, its seventh season, to concentrate on movies. Recently he shot his last episode, which will air late this month. And then ... who will take over for Carell's character, dippy Michael Scott, at Dunder Mifflin's Scranton office?
These sort of personnel matters aren't usually what occupy a viewer's mind this time of year.
Any other TV season, attention would be showered on which series will be back next fall and which shows might fall by the wayside.
Meanwhile, fans are usually preparing to bid farewell to a favorite show reaching the end of a momentous run. Last year, for example, the impending finales of "24" and "Lost" had the audience on tenterhooks, eager to see how those sagas would conclude. The year before, it was "ER" bowing out after 15 seasons.
By contrast, there are no must-see finales this year. (Sure, "Smallville" will wrap up after 10 seasons. But who knew it was still on anyway?)
Nor are any truly beloved shows whose fate hangs in the balance while their supporters feverishly lobby for their survival.
No, the big suspense of Spring 2011 dwells on two veteran yet (presumably) full-of-life sitcoms and burning questions like, Who will be the new star? And, Will that new star sustain or even build on the show's past success _ or mess things up?
On "The Office," it's known that Will Ferrell will step in for this season's last few episodes playing Michael Scott's provisional replacement.
A theory came and went recently proposing that Ferrell would stick around as a permanent cast member. But he's a busy and highly successful movie star. He seems a long shot to be tied down to a series.
An alternate theory: "The Office" might promote from within, filling the void with a member of the show's large existing cast.
Needless to say, the show's network and studio are mum on their long-term plans, which might not reveal themselves until next season is under way.
"Two and a Half Men" is a whole other kettle of fish.
The hijinks and misbehavior of its former star brought the glare of unsought publicity to the show and led to production shutdowns while Sheen got rehab for substance abuse. But however high-maintenance he might have been, Sheen, with his portrayal of freewheeling, womanizing Charlie Harper, was the keystone of a series that attracted a weekly audience of nearly 15 million viewers this season.
There's always the chance that Sheen and the producers could kiss and make up and he could come back. Stranger things have happened (although, in this case, it's hard to think of one).
But what newcomer can measure up to Sheen's legacy? Who can comfortably connect with the show's time-tested premise (the ups and downs of bachelor life) and with the show's remaining cast (particularly the high-strung divorced father, Alan, played by Jon Cryer)?
That guessing game has been in full swing for weeks, with rumored candidates including John Stamos, James Spader and Jay Mohr (representatives for whom say no deal is pending), as well as David Arquette (whose spokeswoman declined to comment).
Or what about James Franco, who seems to be up for anything (though, with any luck, not another dreary year hosting the Oscars)?
Or what about Will Arnett, even though he's also been mentioned as a good fit for "The Office," and, by the way, has a pilot deal for his own new series?
But all of these names assume Charlie Harper will be replaced by a similar character. What if the producers choose to go in a fresh, new direction?
For instance, the name of Jenny McCarthy has come up. Who knows how she would be written into the show (she's guest-starred before as a sexy con artist). But who cares? With her sharing the bachelor pad with Alan and his teenage son, she could turn the show into a "Two and a Half's Company."
Or, for a real departure, how about Larry King (a seasoned pro who's surely available right now) as an oft-divorced septuagenarian ladies' man?
Or what about the most obvious choice of all, Betty White? Just go ahead and let her run with it. She's funny, everybody loves her, and she's already doing nearly everything else.
EDITOR'S NOTE _ Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org