The past year has shown that for every Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock, there are too many Maria Bellos on Prime Suspect.
Each spring as TV networks lay the drop cloths for the impending bloodbath—the cancellation of an underperforming five to ten shows on its schedule—they simultaneously begin gearing up for the ratings battle the next fall. Currently, there are upwards of 100 TV pilots in development from the major networks, with new casting announcements, plot details, and updates appearing every day. Of those, a couple dozen will actually make it to the air, on a wish and a prayer that a handful will be among next year's few breakout new shows—a New Girl or Once Upon a Time for Fall 2012.
Considering the crowded competition for the few shots at success, networks, studios, and showrunners clamor for any magic bean from which positive buzz for their pilot's will grow, hopefully leading to a series pickup and possibly even ratings success. Traditionally—and especially over the past few pilot seasons—the magic bean/secret ingredient that networks fight for is movie stars. Each year a fantasy list emerges of movie stars the studios are hoping to woo to the small screen. This year's dream roster includes the likes of Meg Ryan, Greg Kinnear, Jane Fonda, and Hugh Grant.
For a long time, television had no hope of capturing big stars like these. But in recent years—and particularly this year—more and more well known actors are starring on TV shows. Reports say that, with the movie industry shrinking and fewer films getting made, the market for big stars willing to sign onto TV pilots is especially bullish this year. Indeed, big names have already joined a slew of network pilots: Dennis Quaid, Kevin Bacon, Cuba Gooding Jr., Sigourney Weaver, Ellen Barkin, John Leguizamo, David Arquette, Malin Akerman, Mandy Moore, Mira Sorvino, and more. TV execs must be ecstatic.
They shouldn't be. If recent history tells us anything, it's that new TV shows cast with movie stars in the lead typically tank in the ratings, earn abysmal reviews, or, in many cases, suffer both calamities. Most recently, Ashley Judd roundhouse kicked her way onto ABC, where she played a "Mother! Trying to find her son!" on Missing. Critics shrugged with mixed-to-negative reviews. The show didn't necessarily qualify as appointment TV for audiences, either. Its 10 million viewers weren't horrendous, but it's 2.0 rating in the ever-desirable 18-49 demographic, which determines whether a network cancels a show, certainly was. The midseason premiere of Community—a notoriously low-rated show—beat it in the demo, as did every single other drama that ABC premiered this season, including The River, Pan Am, and Charlie's Angels.
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But Judd isn't alone. The shame list of movie stars from shows this season that are either already canceled, on the verge of cancelation, or barely skating by despite atrocious reviews is startlingly long. There's: Josh Lucas (The Firm), Christina Ricci (Pan Am), Maria Bello (Prime Suspect), Dustin Hoffman (Luck), Patrick Wilson (A Gifted Man), Don Cheadle (House of Lies), Kathy Bates (Harry's Law), Christian Slater (Breaking In), and Rob Schneider (Rob). What, exactly went wrong?
One could argue that the star wattage of the majority of celebrities in that above list has significantly dimmed over the years. Many of them aren't A-listers, and several, like Judd, have seen their movie careers slow to a grinding halt, perhaps explaining why they've chosen this moment in their careers to deign trying out TV. (Anyone who thinks the Hollywood caste system doesn't ghettoize TV anymore need only tune in to the Golden Globes, where movie actors populate the tables closest to the stage while stars on even the most popular TV shows sit practically across the street.) An audience that's not willing to watch these stars in films anymore might not be willing to watch their TV series.
Then there's the projects they choose. A scan of the movie star-led projects that failed reveals that most of the shows hailed from tired genres with done-to-death premises. A Gifted Man, Harry's Law: both procedurals. The Firm, Prime Suspect: both remakes. Perhaps stars are risk averse and sign on to familiarly-formatted shows thinking that they have the best chance at CSI/Law and Order-like success. But take a look at the kinds of innovative, creative series that are taking off, and this seems like a fool's plan.
That's not to say that there aren't actors largely recognized from the movies who make the TV thing work. Zooey Deschanel's New Girl is a ratings smash, boosting the actress's profile more than any of her films has. But New Girl's success can largely be attributed to its uniqueness; it's the kind of risky, go-for-broke comedy with a polarizing character that seems to scare away the big stars. Similarly, Laura Linney found success on The Big C, a show that dares try to make cancer funny. Kat Dennings may play the bawdiest female character on network television in 2 Broke Girls, and audiences are eating it up. The trio of actresses were wise to choose unusual and utterly original projects—and particularly prescient to choose comedies. (When that bloodbath is tallied, expect to see the dead dramas far out-pile comedies.)
Sure, there are other exceptions. Alec Baldwin and Sarah Jessica Parker is and was aces on 30 Rock and Sex and the City, respectively. But both actors took the roles before it became so en vogue for movie stars to flock to TV. They were the new dazzling treats; the novelty hadn't worn off yet. Oscar-winners Jessica Lange and Anjelica Huston are enjoying successful runs on American Horror Story and Smash, but they smartly assumed supporting roles, where the show's success or failure didn't rest solely on their backs.
So is Dennis Quaid the next Zooey Deschanel? Or the next Kathy Bates? Some things are just too hard to predict.