Tag Archives: Guest Star

Why Will Ferrell on The Office Worries Me Immensely

Why Will Ferrell on The Office Worries Me Immensely

January 26th, 2011

In my reviews of The Office’s seventh season at The A.V. Club, my focus has inevitably fallen on Michael Scott’s imminent departure. Note that I did not say Steve Carell’s imminent departure: while I understand that the actor is the one leaving the show, my interest lies in the conclusion offered the character rather than in the loss of Carell’s presence. While I very much appreciate Steve Carell, and think that he should have already won an Emmy for his work on the show, I think that the real questions relating to his exit have to do with his character. That is where my investment lies, and that is where I’ve felt the entire season has channeled its focus in order to offer final moments for Michael to interact with his various co-workers and his potential love interests.

Inevitably, however, Carell’s exit moves from the realm of the narrative into the realm of the press, as news leaked that he would be exiting ahead of the season finale (thus creating a transition period towards the end of the season) during the TCA Press Tour. To some degree, I would have rather not known this information, but I’ve sort of accepted that Michael’s final episode will feature an enormous buildup, an extensive ad campaign, and probably even a “Best of Michael Scott” clip show leading into the episode in question (which will probably be an hour long itself). Steve Carell’s exit from the series is going to be a media event far removed from the narrative, and so there was always going to be some level of distraction away from Michael Scott’s character amidst that circus.

However, news that Will Ferrell will be appearing in a four-episode guest stint in order to help send off Carell is enormously disheartening, stripping away any sense that this exit actually belongs to Michael Scott. While I enjoy Anchorman well enough, and find Ferrell to be a fine actor when divorced from his most juvenile characteristics, this pairing threatens any sense of long-term characterization simply to chase after a larger audience, prioritizing the actor over the character and the hype over the show.

And, at least to me, that seems like a huge mistake.

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Parks and Recreation – “The Set Up”

“The Set Up”

January 14th, 2010

After just writing about Community’s handling of Jack Black’s guest spot by calling attention to how distracting it could be to have a recognizable guest star show up on your show, it’s interesting to turn our gaze to Parks and Recreation, where two “big name” guest stars (at least in my circles) debuted. While Community drew our attention to Black’s disruption in order to make a large meta-joke, Parks and Recreation does something similar but different in creating an extra layer of comedy for those who know that Will Arnett and Amy Poehler are married in real life.

It was a good example of how casting someone recognizable can help a storyline rather than hurt it, as Arnett was simply a fun casting choice: he’s funny, and the marriage added an extra layer to the scene, but it wasn’t dependent on a guest star, just as the show didn’t need to have Justin Theroux playing the aptly named Justin, a friend of Ann’s who Leslie takes a liking to. Both characters, despite being cast with recognizable faces (for me, at least), played roles which weren’t played as the “point” of the episode, but their performances gave them an added weight, which is especially helpful when Theroux might be sticking around for a while.

And so now we can look at the episode less in terms of who was in it, and more in terms of the episode built around them…okay, I’m going to talk some more about Arnett. Sue me.

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Community – “Investigative Journalism”

“Investigative Journalism”

January 14th, 2010

There was a lot of talk early in 30 Rock’s third season about the proliferation of guest stars into the series, which was met with a lot of negative response from critics and viewers alike. The show felt as if it was being dominated by those guest stars, and that the stories were not so much about their presence in the show’s universe than they were about the characters themselves (which, in most instances, were indistinct enough to effectively become the actors playing themselves). It’s not that the show couldn’t write compelling guest stars (Dean Winters’ Dennis Duffy kills every time), but rather that something about the way they were integrating them into the show’s dynamic was off-putting.

Tonight, Community performed an experiment through the use of Jack Black, purposefully testing the show’s characters dynamics in order to see if adding another character to the mix would upend their rhythms. However, like many experiments where the facilitators are controlling every variable, the results are exactly what they want them to be, and Black’s character Buddy is a fundamental distraction who feels distinctly out of place. But by actually tapping into our expectations that the presence of a big star with a penchant for overacting would disrupt the flow of the series, and by allowing Black to essentially play an amalgam of his most annoying qualities without any context, the episode says something about how we react to interlopers on shows which focus on tight-knit groups.

In the process, the show gets quite a funny episode, and reinforces how much we like this study group as it is.

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Modern Family – “Up All Night”

“Up All Night”

January 6th, 2010

For a show that likes to wrap up each episode with a lesson that defines the show’s themes, I’m somewhat disappointed that Modern Family seems to be unable to learn lessons based on the first part of its season. Now, don’t get me wrong: the show is still early in its run, so I’m not expecting the show to have ironed out all of its problems. However, for a show that is often considered such a “well-crafted” comedy (a quality that I would not challenge in terms of the show’s best episodes/scenes), there’s a point where some fairly serious structural issues are coming to the surface for me as an audience member, and I’m concerned that the level of critical praise for the series will keep them from investigating these problems further so long as the ratings stay strong.

So when episodes like “Up All Night” seem particularly flat, I want the writers to notice that it’s because they separated the families, and that as a result one story felt like an extended comedy sketch, another felt like a series of comedy sketches, and the other rested on its laurels due to the presence of the week’s guest star. There were some token efforts to tie the three stories together, but in the end the show told three stories that felt like they were only firing on one cylinder.

And while, as always, the show is capable of being quite funny on occasion, there are episodes like this one which indicate that the writers aren’t willing to go the extra mile to push the boundaries of their characters or their situations each week. And the Modern Family we see in “Up All Night” is not the show at its finest, and I have to wonder if the creators will bother to recognize that so long as the show remains an “unqualified” success.

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Modern Family – “Great Expectations”

“Great Expectations”

November 18th, 2009

In terms of the great comedy battle of 2009, which continues to rage amongst shows both new and old, Modern Family is at a distinct disadvantage: with Parks and Recreation delivering some legitimately great comedy and Community doing a really compelling and confident meta-storyline, the simplicity of this show is a disadvantage in terms of being flashy. There comes a point where the hype surrounding the show creates greater expectations than the storylines themselves can live up to in terms of their premise, requiring viewers to appreciate the strong execution where originality isn’t overtly present.

“Great Expectations” is a solid episode of the show, featuring a number of fun loving gags and a couple of big guest stars, but nothing stands out as particularly stunning as compared to some of the other comedies. In this instance, I think there was enough nuance to each individual story to continue to prove how strong the writers understand these characters, but it nonetheless follows similar patterns to what we’ve seen in the past. I think it’s one of their stronger episodes due to a nice role reversal, but it’s not reaching as high as some of the other comedies are right now.

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Parks and Recreation – “Ron and Tammy”

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“Ron and Tammy”

November 5th, 2009

“Now listen to one of mine.”

There’s nothing special about “Ron and Tammy,” except that it’s probably the funniest Parks and Recreation to date.

There’s a guest star, yes, but not one who feels overly forced into the story or on who the show relies too heavily. There’s no special event taking place in the context of the episode to make things more exciting than usual, and there’s even a B-Plot that has nothing to do with the A-Plot. And if you were to write down the plot of the episode without any context (which would read “Leslie and Ron feud with Library Services over an Empty Lot”), you would probably think this episode would be downright dreadful.

But what makes this episode so special is that this episode is less an aberration and more a sign that the momentum just isn’t going to go away, and that this sitcom has finally found its groove. The episode’s situation is one of the show’s funniest, and it features some of the best lines in the show’s short lifespan, but it feels like the show could have just as funny a scenario in the future without any trouble. It is an episode that not only convinces you that it is great, but also that the show behind the episode is just as strong if not stronger for having spawned it.

If you are for some reason still one of those people who never gave this show a chance, you need to watch this episode not because it is singularly great but because it is symptomatic of a broader greatness. You’ve been listening to the other guys, with their offices and sketch comedy shows, for long enough: tonight, listen to the genius of Ron F**kin’ Swanson.

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Modern Family – “The Incident”

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“The Incident”

October 14th, 2009

This is going to see like a really weird connection, but one of the things that I found really interesting about The CW’s Privileged was how quickly it dealt with its built-in back story. The show was dealing with an estranged mother and a distant father in its central protagonist, and it got both out of the way quickly…in fact, perhaps too quickly. The show never quite felt as purposeful when it moved past those interesting dynamics, and while they were important parts of its early identity it seemed like they could have been burned off more slowly to heighten their impact.

However, Modern Family makes an enormously compelling argument for getting back story out of the way, or at the very least the value of back story in the early stages of a sitcom’s development in particular. While the show is essentially checking off a list of recurring character we’ve yet to see (Benjamin Bratt was just cast as Gloria’s ex, for example), the seamless integration of Long into the cast only brings out more of our characters, and the way the episode depicts a past “Incident” is a hilarious piece of back story that does nothing to diminish what could be introduced with time. On a drama, a character like Long evokes the same kind of emotions each time she returns, and the show can only go there so many times. On a sitcom, however, as long as things remain funny and as long as a diverse set of characters are involved, you can keep on bringing her back with minimal loss of comic value.

And considering where this episode starts off at on that front, DeDe could be a funny recurring player on the show for seasons to come.

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2009 Emmy Awards Nominations Predictions: The Tale of the Tape

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The Tale of the Tape

July 15th, 2009

Heading into tomorrow morning’s nominations (5:30 Pacific Time, so 8:30 Eastern and 9:30 for me in the Atlantic time zone), there are a few certainties, and a few question marks. I talked before about the uncertainty of the popular vote, which places a show like Lost somewhere in between an equilibrium of popular shows like House and Grey’s Anatomy and more critical/industry favourites like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Here, it’s tie to take a look at some of the big stories that could emerge from the nominations, as well as a glimpse at some of the categories that I didn’t get to during the week. So, let’s get the Tale of the Tape.

Mad Men = The New Sopranos?

Last year, Mad Men racked up an Emmy for Drama Series, a nomination for Lead Actor and Best Supporting Actor, and five other statues (including Writing for Matthew Weiner). The question now really comes down to just how much the show’s second season is going to increase those odds. Chances are that one of the show’s two leading women will break through, now much more household names when it comes to the show’s success, and there’s room for more supporting players at well. If it follows the Sopranos pattern, it could break through big – if it, however, gets held back by being on AMC, it could end up with roughly the same nominations.

The Year of CBS?

It may be unlikely, with far more popular shows in terms of Hollwood and the Emmys in the category, but How I Met Your Mother is at the point where its breakout year might be upon us. Neil Patrick Harris is hosting, the show’s ratings have solidified it as a hit in its own right, and it is no longer in fear of cancellation which makes it seem like the kind of show that will be around for a while. It has to compete with stablemate The Big Bang Theory, which has Jim Parsons breaking out in a big way, and Two and a Half Men, but that two more legitimate Emmy contenders than the network had a year ago (and, in my mind, two more than it should have, but that’s neither here nor there). Combine with a chance for The Mentalist’s Simon Baker, and CBS is maybe not just the people’s network anymore.

Breaking Bad Breaking Through?

Last year, Bryan Cranston won in a bit of a shocker in the Lead Actor category for his work on the other AMC drama, Breaking Bad. Many have taken that win and viewed it as a sign that the show, which got even better in its second season, has a chance of breaking through in its own right. I’m of the mind that it will, but Cranston’s win was as much for his lack of a win for Malcolm in the Middle than it was for his brave performance, so it will be interesting to see if the show can join Cranston in the Emmy race. It has the benefit of having aired fairly recently, but it’s yet to be seen if it can break through on the popular vote.

The Final Chance for Battlestar Galactica

A real chance of breaking into the Drama Series race, or the various acting categories, just isn’t in the cards; Battlestar Galactica may have had an amazing finale, and its actors may have stepped up more than ever before, but in a popular vote competition it just isn’t going to get the support it needs. Mary McDonnell is going to get pushed out of her category, although remains a long shot candidate if things get really weird, but the show’s real chance lies in both writing and direction. There’s probably room in those categories for Ronald D. Moore and Michael Rymer, as they’ve been represented before, so it will be interesting to see if they can pick up those nods. They’ll also dominate the special effects categories, with the Visual Effects team easily picking up their third Emmy.

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Going Through the Motions (with Style): John Lithgow cast for Dexter Season 4

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Going Through the Motions (With Style):

John Lithgow and Dexter Season Four

I am, without question, a Dexter contrarian. I like the show, don’t get me wrong, but when everyone was jumping up and down at the end of its second season I was frustrated with a lack of finish. When the third season was ramping up and getting everyone excited, I was observing a few too many similarities in the way that Jimmy Smits’ character, Miguel Prado, mirrored Season 2′s primary focus of Dexter’s attention, FBI Agent Frank Lundy. By the time they got to the Season 3 finale, I had more or less given up on ever liking the show as much as ever, and penned what I consider to be the definitive statement of my frustration in my review of the episode.

In that review, I conclude the following:

“But what “Do You Take Dexter Morgan?” reminds me, against my will, is that this is a show with limitations, one which in the introduction of Jimmy Smits shed more light on its weakly developed supporting cast, and in its slow start made us stop and think “what other directions could this show be taking that would be more dramaturgically interesting” for a few episodes too long. In those moments, I know exactly why I jumped on that drunk, hungry, and entirely innocent TV viewer: Dexter could be a better show than it is, and the third season was filled with warnings that the show seems unaware of its recurring problems.”

So with news that John Lithgow (3rd Rock from the Sun, Harry and the Hendersons) has been cast in a key role in the upcoming season which begins on September 27th, and that a particular familiar face will be returning (I’ll leave that beneath the jump as it’s a bit more of a spoiler), I can’t help but feel that Dexter is just going through the motions, repeating patterns that give us a single strong character dynamic while robbing the show as a whole of a chance to actually develop into a show on the level that the series aspires to.

[Note: the below post spoils who his character is, and the basic plot of Dexter's fourth season - if you want to be surprised, stop reading.]

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Season Finale: Party Down – “Stennheiser-Pong Wedding Reception”

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“Stennheiser-Pong Wedding Reception”

May 22nd, 2009

There’s an argument to be made that Party Down is the season’s strongest new comedy, and it’s one that has become progressively easier to make as the season continues. Not to disparage Better Off Ted (which is good but not particularly revolutionary), or The United States of Tara (which was a drama before it was a comedy, realistically speaking), but this out of nowhere Starz series from Rob Thomas and John Enbom simply presented the most complete comedy to debut. A strong ensemble cast is supported by a series of constantly changing party scenarios, ranging from the ridiculous to the personal, where recognizable actors show up as guest stars to complicate the lives of the characters involved; it doesn’t sound too complicated when you really think about it, but it’s essentially an absurdist procedural dark comedy series, and one that has been remarkably consistent.

“Stennheiser-Pong Wedding Reception” is a strong way to end such a consistent season, if not the show’s best episode: like many other comedies, the show is often as its most effective when dealing with heavier dramatic material but at the same time can lose something of its essence. The presence of Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) helps to elevate the finale from a comic level, and Jennifer Coolidge’s continuing guest stint in place of Jane Lynch brings something fun to the table, but this episode is far less about the scenario than it is about the characters. While the series has often ignored the reality of catering in order to allow the characters to mingle about and face little to no actual work, here the whole point is that there is real work: this is the real world, and if you can’t take the heat get out of the barn.

And by the end of the episode, everyone but Henry sort of does.

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