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A 'Game' changer for hit BET series

| Sunday, March 31, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Since being rescued from the scrap heap two years ago, after it was canceled by the CW, “The Game” has proved to be a winner for BET. The football-themed series scored record ratings in its 2011 cable debut, remains the channel's top-rated series, and with “Real Husbands of Hollywood” anchors BET's scripted comedy slate.

Now in its sixth season, the show is reeling from the loss of its two MVPs: Tia Mowry-Hardrict and Pooch Hall.

Although she is punching up the series with new cast members, creator and executive producer Mara Brock Akil admitted that dealing with the absence of “the heart” of “The Game” has been a formidable challenge, forcing the show into its third reboot in six years.

“Changing networks and then changing casts is initially always daunting,” Akil said by phone from Atlanta, where the show is filmed. “Losing Pooch and Tia is really rough — you love them, they're a part of the family, and you want it to last forever. But sometimes there are circumstances beyond your control, and you have to play with the cards you are dealt. Losing them was definitely not ideal, but the show has to go on.”

With its predominantly African-American cast, “The Game,” which first launched in 2006 on the CW, featured Hardrict as Melanie Barnett, an aspiring doctor who put her plans for medical school on hold to support her boyfriend, Derwin Davis (Hall), a star receiver for the fictional San Diego Sabers. The couple, who later married, were the central focus of the ensemble cast.

But the show hit a roadblock late last season when Hall accepted a role on Showtime's upcoming drama “Ray Donovan.” Subsequently, Hardrict told reporters that Hall's exit left her character's status uncertain and that she'd decided to leave “The Game” rather than have Melanie become less important.

“What has happened speaks authentically to the world of sports,” Akil said. “We fall in love with players, and it hurts when they leave. It's like Peyton Manning leaving the Colts to wear a Broncos uniform. It hurts, but it's what real life is like. First you get nervous, then it becomes exciting and new. There's new life to the show.”

Hardrict, who continues to appear with her twin sister, Tamera Mowry-Housley (“Sister, Sister”), on their Style Network reality series, “Tia & Tamera,” declined to comment for this story.

New to the cast is Jay Ellis, who plays Bryce “The Blueprint” Westbrook, a cocky No. 1 draft pick whose recruitment by the Sabers leads to Derwin being traded to a Washington team, and Lauren London, who plays Keira Whitaker, a former child star trying to revive her career. Westbrook and Whitaker will most likely become romantically involved down the line, producers say, while more emphasis will be focused on other cast members.

Costar Wendy Raquel Robinson, who has been on the show since its debut, called the revamp “a true resurrection. It feels completely different, crisper and edgier and sexier. I know we will get new fans. The true constant is ‘The Game.'”

Making it easier for Akil to move past the Melanie and Derwin era is the chance to bring closure to their story line. Melanie will finally pursue her medical career while Derwin tries to make it with his new team.

“They're together, and we were able to put a period on their story,” she said.

Akil is no stranger to major cast upheavals. Brittany Daniel, the sole white member of “The Game” cast, left soon after the BET move. And in 2006, Jill Marie Jones, one of the four leads on Akil's CW comedy “Girlfriends,” abruptly exited. Akil was shaken, particularly since Jones, who figured in many prominent story arcs, refused to make a farewell appearance to explain her character's departure.

No such behind-the-scenes drama was behind the exits on “The Game,” Akil said. Hall had the blessing of the producers and network executives to try out for the Showtime series.

Loretha Jones, BET's president of original programming, said she was not concerned about fallout from the absence of Hardrict and Hall, and she heaped praise on Akil and her husband, Salim Akil, an executive producer who directs many of the episodes.

“The challenge with any show is how to keep it alive and fresh,” Jones said. “I love the new cast members and the new feel of the show. The way they fit in with the rest of the show is so realistic. It's an opportunity, not a challenge. I personally like Tia and Pooch very much, and we will miss them. But we have a wonderful opportunity to expand, and I have a feeling that the audience will be very happy.”

Greg Braxton is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.

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