First, there was Isaiah Washington, whose rocky comeback-from-scandal tour has kept celebrity gossip sites on the edge of their seats for months.
Last week, NBC hired Washington, the reputedly gay-bashing star, late of Grey’s Anatomy, in a deal that includes a temporary featured role on its new remake of Bionic Woman.
Executives then spent time and energy deflecting objections that this brand of stunt casting constituted a big fat dis to the gay community.
The Isaiah Washington drama was then accentuated by similarly bizarre antics from another long-running TV malcontent, Mandy Patinkin.
The day of the Washington announcement, publicists revealed that Patinkin, who unexpectedly left Chicago Hope years ago, had abruptly ditched yet another popular CBS drama, Criminal Minds, two months before the start of the fall season.
The studio seemed, initially, to be in a forgiving mood, mumbling stuff about “creative differences,” but that was later disputed by the show’s producer, who insisted that — in a rather Dave Chappelle style twist — Patinkin was simply a no-show at work.
By midweek, reporters were pelting CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler with questions about the odd turn of events, even dredging up the mutiny led by another suffering star, Mark Harmon, who reportedly worked overtime to get NCIS creator and producer Don Bellisario bumped off the show this year.
“‘Creative differences’ is a euphemism for ‘personal issues,'” Tassler said, and then winked. Knowingly.
As if to say, “Actors — they are nuts! Whatcha gonna do?”
Well, no arguments here. Look at Lindsay Lohan.
No, it’s really that, with network shows on starvation diets for attention and viewers, executives will excuse just about anything if it might conceivably encourage “sampling.”
They have to forgive the quirks of problem children like Patinkin, famous for The Princess Bride and other films and music before moving to TV. The reasoning? They never know when they might need to call them again — and scandal sells!
We haven’t yet devolved to the world of an O.J. Simpson sitcom, but Fox tip-toed awfully close last year with its bungled book deal-TV interview with the former NFL star.
This isn’t great news for actors, at least the ones who take seriously what they do for a living. Television executives, and to some extent the general public, have come to view trained actors much as they do the drive-by stars of reality TV, as “talent” to be exploited rather than nurtured.
The ability to inhabit characters onscreen is beginning to matter less than the ability to be a talked-about character and subject of Hollywood rumors.
Now, this doesn’t mean actors have more clout or get higher salaries, the way it did when the old studio system collapsed in the 1950s. It means, on the contrary, that all performers are starting to get tossed into the same bargain bin, their value zooming mostly when they do something outrageous.
The shift is subtle, to be sure.
Studios and networks have always lusted after headline-grabbing stars, just as they have always quietly appreciated, in their own way, genuine talent. But the change is happening.
That helps explain why, at his highly anticipated debut press briefing last week, new NBC co-Chairman Ben Silverman emphasized stars, stars, stars.
It wasn’t just the grab for Washington; Silverman also expressed the hope that Rosie O’Donnell, a veritable controversy magnet, would somehow find her way to working with her enemy, Donald Trump, on a reconstituted The Apprentice. Didn’t happen.
But could such an inspired pairing have made for great TV? Sure. That option, though — as well as any serious skepticism whether The Apprentice should return at all — appears to have taken a back seat to the potential marketing angle: “Rosie. Donald. Grudge match!”
As for Washington, Silverman told reporters that he was surprised to learn that the actor had been dumped from Grey’s Anatomy, which, given widely publicized tales of Washington’s on-set conflicts over the years, oddball interviews in the aftermath of his ouster and general demeanor, would make Silverman a member of a distinct minority in Los Angeles County.
“It’s like Alex Rodriguez leaving the Yankees in mid-season,” Silverman said, conveniently ignoring that fact that Washington, unlike A-Rod, was billed on Grey’s as a player in an ensemble, not a breakout star.
Time will deliver its verdict on Silverman’s reclamation project.
Unfortunately for NBC, though, there’s scant evidence that such a star-laden strategy actually works. One problem is that you can’t manufacture a TV hit simply by hiring a star.
Unlike film, where a fast box-office start can mean everything, TV shows evolve slowly, and so successful shows, and stars, tend to come from out of nowhere.
Despite efforts to beef up viewer interest in the “stars” of reality TV shows – can Heather Mills dance? What’s Paula Abdul’s deal? – audience share continues to tank.
When CBS made a heralded push for big stars several years back, one result was a bad sitcom with Bette Midler. Networks have tried for years to find a workable show for Geena Davis.
Geena Davis! Now that’s a recognizable name. But someone tell Silverman not to bother. She’s already in the running to replace Mandy Patinkin on Criminal Minds.