For a long time in Hollywood, “TV star” was a qualified compliment. In the hierarchy of fame it was a bit like being the tallest leprechaun or the highest-rated show on NBC. The flowchart of success only moved in one direction, from small screen to big, and even then it could be a bumpy ride, with ascendant actors forced to endure more than their fair share of lumps and latex on the path to movie stardom. George Clooney was the most charming man in America for years before America bothered to notice. It was only after starring in ER, a weekly phenomenon watched by 20 million people, and subsequently being humiliated by fighting crime in a codpiece the size of Noah Wyle, that his ticket to the big leagues was finally punched. Under this model, TV was the purgatory from which true stars escaped and fallen ones returned, doomed to live out the rest of their careers dispensing cheery advice to helicopters and avoiding mirrors at all costs.
Things began to change in the last decade, as television emerged as a legitimate alternative — not only to the unemployment line (or, worse, celebrity diving competitions) but to the increasingly myopic blockbuster mentality of movies. Gifted older actresses like Glenn Close and Laura Linney have found new life and opportunities on TV, far from the thankless slate of Supporting Wives or Sympathetic Executives No. 3 that appear once the “Hot Mom” roles begin to dry up at age 28. Former leading slab Alec Baldwin took to the part of Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock like Liz Lemon to an all-you-can-eat sandwich bar, winning acclaim, awards, and creating an entirely new, lucrative lane for himself as a self-satirizing windbag in a suit. Zooey Deschanel was considered a young film actress on the rise in 2011. But she took one look at her next decade — scratching and clawing for the right to smile blankly as Jim Carrey’s age-inappropriate love interest or freeze to death in Northern Ireland while dumb boys get all the good lines — and opted out.1 Instead she took a gamble on a spec sitcom script called Chicks and Dicks (eventually renamed New Girl) and emerged a comic celebrity in her own right — with a much better commute to boot.
As the years go by and the character development in movies gets worse and worse, turning to TV seems less like a stable safety net and more like a viable choice for career salvation, rebranding, or even enhancement.2 The paychecks may be smaller, but, on a hit show, they’re certainly steadier and certain syndication deals can equal the kind of financial windfall usually reserved for tiny Scientologists and minor league pitchers. But actors, like cinematic discoverers of the Holy Grail, must choose wisely. Selecting the wrong project can be catastrophic, burning up all of the star wattage that got the networks’ attention in the first place. Behind the success of a Kevin Bacon — currently searching for murderers and simple story logic on Fox’s hit The Following — there’s a Christian Slater, a former movie star who’s now one TV stinker away from bombing out of two mediums entirely. Not even the presence of Dustin Hoffman could save HBO’s fevered Luck — or, you know, the lives of all those horses sent to the glue factory as result of the unreasonable demands of its production. For every David Caruso leaving NYPD Blue there’s David Caruso returning to CSI: Miami. Timing, as Horatio Caine might say as he removes his sunglasses, is everything. (Cue Who song.)
And so, with that in mind, I thought I’d take a look at nine boldface names headlining shows this pilot season. Some are newcomers to television, others are returning after decades. All have a lot on the line. With the caveat that, in most cases, I know nothing more about the projects than what’s been reported — and the further caveat that there’s a good chance at least some of these will never even make it to air — I’m grading the decisions on a Goldilocks scale: Are these stars coming to TV too soon? Too late? Or, in classic Baby Bear style, is their timing just right? If all of this seems unfair or arbitrary, well, I’m right there with you. But come on: What do you expect? Reacting to things unfairly and arbitrarily is what we do in television. It’s kind of our thing.
Last Seen on TV: As Coach Eric Taylor on Friday Night Lights; 02/09/11
The Project: Vatican (Showtime)
Though he was far from a household name, for almost 20 years Chandler had strung together a perfectly respectable career as a likable, dependable leading man on soapy network dramas. He was the guy who gets the future newspaper from the magic cat on Early Edition, the bomb squad hunk who blew up Meredith Grey’s world (and then blew up for real) on Grey’s Anatomy. It was the West Texas of celebrity, but it was more than enough to send his kids to private school. And then came Friday Night Lights.
Chandler was a revelation as Coach Eric Taylor, effortlessly exuding the sort of sensitive machismo not seen on television since the glory days of James Garner. It was seen as a surprise when he won the Best Actor in a Drama Series Emmy in 2011, but only for those poor souls who hadn’t been watching. On the back of that momentum, Chandler took a series of jobs as stern authority types in some pretty big movies — there he was furrowing his brow in Argo; that was him putting his foot down in Zero Dark Thirty — but at age 47 he had to know a leading role was only possible back on TV. And TV knew it too: From the minute the clock hit zero in the East Dillon Lions’ final game, Chandler has been target no. 1A for every drama script in town. Yet aside from a public dalliance with FX’s long-gestating adaptation of Brian Michael Bendis’s cops-and-capes comic Powers, he’d done little to show his hand.
Last month, Chandler put his cards on the table, taking the lead role in Showtime’s upcoming Vatican, from producers Ridley Scott and Paul Attanasio (House M.D.). There are plenty of pros here, and I don’t just mean in the credits. Under the guidance of Friday Night Lights producer David Nevins, Showtime is on a creative hot streak. And committing to a cable series, with fewer episodes per season, frees up plenty of time for Chandler to scowl his heart out in at least one prestige feature a year. But on paper, the role of a “charismatic yet enigmatic” archbishop of New York seems at once too grandiose and too limiting for an actor as subtle and appealing as Chandler. I’d be more interested in seeing him work closely with needy parishioners than wrestle with liturgical backstabbing an ocean away. Coach Taylor was never one to shy away from a rash decision — even as a native I’m not sure I’d ever pack my bags for Philadelphia so quickly — but I can’t help but wish Chandler had let the play clock run down a bit more here before taking a knee in this particular confessional.
The Verdict: Too soon.
Last Seen on TV: As “Anna Faris” on Entourage; 08/26/073
The Project: Mom (CBS)
After a certain amount of time, you can no long be the next big thing. You are either a thing or you aren’t. This is something Anna Faris — darling of the jizz-joke set; bawdy muse of the liberal intelligentsia — learned the hard way as she transitioned from scene-stealing supporting actress to blame-taking lead. Fearless and physical, Faris has never been bad in anything, but the movies she’s chosen as star-making vehicles were plenty lousy — from the flaccid House Bunny to the floppy What’s Your Number? To add insult to pratfalling injury, the 36-year-old saw her New Yorker–bestowed title of “most original comic actress” snatched away in 2011 by an older sitcom star, Melissa McCarthy. It’s not fair that there’s a world in which Hollywood can only entertain the notion of one successful comedic lady at a time. But that world exists and it’s called Earth.
Since she can’t beat her, it’s smart of Faris to join McCarthy on CBS. Mom, in which Faris will play a sober single mother newly released from rehab, is a multi-camera sitcom being co-written and developed by Chuck Lorre. While there are no sure things on television, signing up with Lorre is, at this point, like flying Qantas or betting on Wesley Snipes when his Qantas flight is hijacked. Lorre’s operating system is the Windows of the sitcom world: hacky and cheap, but god is it successful. With Allison Janney onboard to play Faris’s character’s mom, this is a low-risk, high-reward play for Faris, one that removes the undue pressure placed on her to carry lame scripts, not to mention the unfairly placed hopes and dreams of an entire gender. And if and when that elusive killer movie role appears, she’s got a built-in three-month window to make it happen, just like McCarthy did when she used her vacation from Mike & Molly to film Bridesmaids.
The Verdict: Just right.
Last Seen on TV: Biff in Death of a Salesman; 08/16/85
The Project: Crossbones (NBC)
From the moment he first trod the boards at the Steppenwolf theater in Chicago to the time he chucked away his entire film career to focus on the art and artistry of puppeteering, John Malkovich has been one of the world’s most fascinating actors. So, in a way, deciding to topline an outrageously expensive pirate show for the leaking dinghy that is NBC fits right alongside his long history of quirky decisions, from his insane Russian accent in Rounders to launching a menswear collection called Technobohemian in 2010. But as excited as I am to see what Malkovich can do with an eye patch and a talking parrot, accepting the lead role of Blackbeard in Crossbones may be a gangplank too far.
It’s not that the assembled crew isn’t seaworthy — creator Neil Cross is an acclaimed author and screenwriter (Mama) responsible for every line of the BBC’s excellent Luther. But even a limited 10-episode order seems dangerous for a sinking network with little infrastructure in place to keep ambitious projects afloat. And on any channel, a period piece like this requires a solid anchor in the lead role, not a mischievous chameleon like Malkovich. (It’s telling that Hugh Laurie, Cross’s original target, eventually turned it down.) I would love to see Malkovich lording over a speakeasy on Boardwalk Empire, resurrecting Teddy KGB as a more lethal type of shark on The Americans, or playing the world’s first self-aware zombie on The Walking Dead. But, from a distance, this treasure looks more like fool’s gold.
The Verdict: Too soon.
Last Seen on TV: As Dr. Cate Milton on House M.D.; 02/03/08
The Project: Gaffigan (CBS)
Do you remember when Marisa Tomei was the young, Italian American actress whose surprise Best Supporting Actress Oscar seemed like a total fluke? Yeah. Me too. Instead, the biggest head scratching is now reserved for Mira Sorvino, a lovely Harvard grad whose talent is both undeniable and now almost totally forgotten. Since her last TV appearance — on an excellent, post–Super Bowl episode of House — Sorvino’s IMDb page reads like a work journal scribbled by Dr. Susan Tyler, her bug-chasing character from her last good movie, 1997’s (!) Mimic: unnecessarily splashed with gore and filled with fatal mistakes.
While Sorvino was busy being ignored in clunkers like Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life and Multiple Sarcasms,4 a whole generation’s worth of great TV parts came and went. (Can you imagine Sarah Linden on The Killing if she had a pulse and a personality?) Last year, Sorvino came close with Trooper, a promising Jerry Bruckheimer production developed first for CBS and then later by TNT as a potential replacement for The Closer. But now she seems to have settled on Gaffigan, the multi-cam sitcom being built around talented stand-up Jim Gaffigan. Look, there’s a good chance this show will be funny, but that will have little to do with Sorvino; spunky sitcom wives are a dime a dozen, there to service the jokes and ego of the star. There’s no escaping the fact that this is the most disappointing thing to happen to an Oscar winner since Adrien Brody’s shaving commercial.
The Verdict: Too late.
Last Seen on TV: Saturday night, dicking around with BFF Justin Timberlake on SNL
The Project: Untitled Mike Schur/Dan Goor comedy (Fox)
In its 38th season, Saturday Night Live can be counted on to produce any number of things, among them catchphrases, controversies, cringe-inducing performances, and an unceasing torrent of hand-wringing articles about how it’s not as good as it used to be. One thing Saturday Night Live is not particularly good at producing is movie stars. Outside of a few generational outliers — your Murrays and Murphys, Ferrells and Wiigs — the sketch players of Studio 8H are better at stealing scenes, not carrying entire films. Thankfully, the recent small-screen success of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler — as well as the smart and steady supporting work done by vets like Chris Parnell and Ana Gasteyer — has opened up TV as a third lane for furloughed SNLers, one that will hopefully resign the unproduced Mango: The Movie script to the garbage where it belongs.
The absolutely ready-for-prime-time player most primed to take advantage of this is Andy Samberg. As Hot Rod and That’s My Boy demonstrated — or didn’t — Samberg is a very funny person not particularly good at losing himself in a role written by someone else. The one exception to that may be a role written by Mike Schur, a former SNL writer single-handedly responsible for giving every major cast member of Parks and Recreation the best parts of their careers.5 His work with Poehler has been especially tremendous; by tethering Leslie Knope to the best parts of the actress’s real — and really delightful — personality, Schur was able to give the explosive Poehler a weekly showcase that felt like a podium, not a cage.
His new project, a cop comedy spearheaded by very funny Parks writer Dan Goor, will attempt to craft something similar for Samberg, mainly by putting him back where he belongs: as an authority-challenging member of a larger ensemble. (Also onboard: Terry Crews, Chelsea Peretti, and the great Andre Braugher as a police captain inevitably too old for this shit.) Working with smart, talented people is never a bad move — something Samberg should know well since he’s already collaborated with both T-Pain and Michael Bolton.
The Verdict: Just right.
Last Seen on TV: As “Robin” on Louie (08/02/12)
The Project: The Crazy Ones (CBS)
It’s been more than 30 years since Robin Williams crash-landed his space egg into Boulder, Colorado — and, by extension, the lives of TV viewers everywhere. Since then, the Juilliard-trained actor has surfed a sine wave of popularity, watching tolerance for first his manic humor and then later mawkish drama drastically wax and wane. Williams’s nadir — the triple gut-punch of Patch Adams (Williams the doctor offers good cheer to the terminally ill), Jakob the Liar (Williams the Jew offers good cheer during the Holocaust), and Bicentennial Man (Williams the robot offers good cheer as ordinary humans age, wither, and die) — happened last century, but general audiences have yet to forgive him. Instead, Williams has spent the last few years in well-off limbo, taking himself back to rehab and occasionally taking on projects that tickle his fancy, be they unsettling Bobcat Goldthwait psychodramas, feline-centric Broadway shows, or his warm and placid cameo on Louie — a show that, in a typically idiosyncratic way, has become its own sort of rehab, at least as far as careers and conventional wisdom go.
Now Williams is set to return to where it all started. Not Ork, but the humble sitcom. The Crazy Ones, from prolific writer David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Boston Legal), stars Williams as an advertising exec working in close proximity to his daughter (to be played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) and a charming copywriter (to be played by unlucky would-be star James Wolk). Despite CBS’s comedy department’s long track record of highly micromanaged success, I spot a number of red flags. Kelley, despite his clever pedigree, hasn’t written a straight comedy since Doogie Howser, M.D. And CBS hasn’t had much success when it has ventured outside of its multi-cam comfort zone: Unlike all of its current hits (2 Broke Girls, Big Bang Theory), Crazy Ones is set to be both single-camera and not immediately offensive.
I may be in the minority, but I’d rather have seen Williams take a crack at something weightier on cable — perhaps a dark role like fellow Juilliard ham Kelsey Grammer’s on Boss or something more in line with the world-weary, exhausted prankster we glimpsed on Louie. With good direction and better beta-blockers, wouldn’t he have been an interesting second choice for Walter White? For Williams to come back now and in this way seems anticlimactic, not to mention worrisome: CBS comedies and David E. Kelley scripts are rarely subtle and, as we all know, bad things tend to happen when Robin Williams goes broad.
The Verdict: Too late.
MICHAEL J. FOX
Last Seen on TV: As Louis Canning on The Good Wife; 01/27/13
The Project: Untitled Michael J. Fox comedy (NBC)
This is an easy one. Michael J. Fox is one of the best and most natural television stars of all time: hardworking, impossibly likable, and small enough to fit inside even the tiniest of screens without the need for any of today’s complicated WonkaVision technology. The only thing keeping the diminutive Canadian from toplining a new series was the actor’s own health. So when the former Alex P. Keaton announced that he was ready to get back to the weekly grind, NBC couldn’t offer him his old room back fast enough. This series — built by producer Will Gluck (Easy A) and writer Sam Laybourne (Cougar Town) for, in, and around Fox’s schedule and requirements — was given an unprecedented guarantee: A full 22-episode season will be shot and aired. For the first time since his successful guest stint on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Fox will be playing a character suffering from Parkinson’s disease, adding weight to the comedy and presumably removing some from the shoulders of its leading man. The supporting cast is also top-notch, with The Wire‘s Wendell Pierce onboard as Fox’s friend and Breaking Bad‘s Betsy Brandt cast as his wife. (For a Golden Age TV trifecta, why not consider adding Steven Van Zandt as Fox’s rhythm guitarist?) Yes, NBC is in bad shape, but there are advantages to being the favorite son. Even when Iraq was melting down, there was still a functioning Burger King in the Green Zone, you know?
The Verdict: Just right.
Last Seen on TV: As Eden on Suburgatory; 05/16/12
The Project: HR (Lifetime)
A baseball prospect can rise pretty high on the back of a single talent — a blazing fastball, say, or an ability to hit said fastball a zillion miles. But the holes in a young player’s game tend to be exposed once he reaches the big leagues. The same is true for actors. Alicia Silverstone was amazing in Clueless and adequate in everything since. The more she was asked to be something other than charming, the less she was able to deliver. Whether it was ego, a Cher-like optimism, or a thing for Benicio del Toro, it’s a wonder it took only eight years for her to seek single-character refuge on television.
Unfortunately, that refuge turned out to be Miss Match, a lame show buried by NBC a decade ago, right around the first time the network hit rock bottom. (As it turned out, there were hundreds of sub-basements still to come.) It’s a shame that the handful of pilots she’s filmed since then have all been duds, not to mention the occasional, awful movie. (Although the more I read about 2006’s Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker, a British kids movie co-starring Silverstone, Ewan McGregor, Mickey Rourke (!), Brody from Homeland (!!), and the guy who plays all the primates in Planet of the Apes, the more intrigued I become!) Silverstone’s sunny presence could be a boon to any number of sweet-natured shows, from Suburgatory (where she did a guest stint last year) to Parks and Recreation. Instead, she’s settled on HR, a drama pilot for Lifetime that sounds suspiciously like a double-X chromosome version of Eli Stone, a forgettable ABC series from a few years back also about a corporate drone who becomes a kooky do-gooder after coming face-to-face with mortality. Although I guess Silverstone can relate. Nothing makes you rethink your priorities — or start saying yes to mediocre ideas — like starring in a sassy vampire rom-com with cousin Matthew from Downton Abbey.
The Verdict: Too late.
Last Seen on TV: As Samurai Apocalypse on Californication; 04/01/12
The Project: Gang Related (Fox)
OK, look. It’s not likely that another major studio will hand Prince Rakeem $20 million to make a second masturbatory kung fu indulgence cobbled together from adolescent matinee memories, the falling price of karo syrup, and the calling in of a drunken bar bet made with a blotto Academy Award winner. In fact, I’d say the odds are about the same as him ever being able to gather the extended Wu-Tang Clan in the same room again — although Cappadonna is willing to drive up from Baltimore provided someone else springs for the gas. Even so, there’s just no way the architect of the 36 Chambers ought to be spending his days getting sub-LL money as a supporting player in Gang Related, an unpromising knockoff of The Departed set in the very unscuzzy metropolis of San Francisco. (Where, exactly, is the drama here? Did someone forget to bring a reusable bag to the greenmarket? Did Michael Chabon not snip his plastic six-pack carrier ring? Everyone in the bay knows only rookie cops piss off the Arugula Mob.) I’d much rather the artist occasionally known as Bobby Digital spend those precious hours on set playing chess, drifting in and out of lesser Apatow movies, and continuing the good work of being crazy flamboyant for our rap enjoyment.
The Verdict: Too soon.
This article has been updated to correct the title of ER.