Haven't I seen that murderer somewhere before?
The Unknown Guest Star and the fall television season.
After weeks of intensive training – thumb exercises for the remote, practice sprints to the refrigerator, that sort of thing – I think I'm about set to face the onslaught of police procedurals, courtroom dramas, angst-y teen soap operas, 20-something workplace comedies, and game shows featuring Howie Mandel that mark the beginning of the networks' fall season.
But despite all of my rigorous preparation – I can now set my TiVo to record something in under fifteen seconds flat, a personal best – I'm still a bit nervous, because there are, according to the good folks at TV Guide, 92 brand-new shows and 99 returning favorites, and, despite the efforts of my entire crack team of mad scientists, I've still only got the one set of eyes.
It's like I'm a contestant in a television critic's version of "The Biggest Loser": how do I slim down my television viewing enough to prevent any challenges to my (mostly) unvarnished reputation as a pop culture guru, while making sure I get to leave my apartment before rerun season kicks in? I knew I wouldn't be able to answer that question by myself. I needed an efficiency expert. So I asked myself – as I do in so many situations – "What would Donald Trump do?"
Well, my imaginary Trump first asked me to reengineer my cost-benefit structural ratios through a judicious series of trims in middle management. I objected on the grounds of neither having middle management nor knowing what he was talking about. He then asked whether any of the shows had problems that, potentially, "lowered my enjoyment threshold to sub-optimal spectating conditions" and could therefore be trimmed. That's when I told him about the Law of the Famous Unknown Guest Star, and he nodded approvingly, billed me 5000 dollars, then fired me.
For those of you not familiar with the Law because you were ogling all the models on "Deal or No Deal," it goes something like this: almost any procedural, whodunit, or mystery show on television runs on a series of actors who aren't the regular cops, lawyers, district attorneys, confidential informants, or what have you. These actors play the pool of family members, friends, business partners, lovers, etc., of the deceased/accused/injured man/woman/child/insert other inappropriate but amusing animate noun here.
Most of these actors aren't "names"; if they were, they wouldn't be guests on "CSI: New York" to begin with, instead they'd be spending their time avoiding paparazzi. But even among the unknowns – people whose names you wouldn't be able to come up with in a million years – there are extremely familiar faces. You know, that guy with the receding hairline and the hangdog look, or the beautiful blonde with the cultured English accent. You'd know them if you saw them.
Which is my point: these extremely familiar faces are clearly at the top of the Unknown Guest Star casting pool. Which means that, as a result of clawing their way to the top of that particular heap (often, it must be said, through real talent and technical skill), if they appear on a show, they'll always have a particularly meaty part, some major screen time. Which is death for a procedural or a mystery, since it gives some of the game away: if we know that a Famous Unknown Guest Star is going to have major screen time, then he or she must be highly implicated in the events to follow, which means that we're clued in more than the detectives or policemen, but not because of anything about the show – simply because we know how the Hollywood system works.
Of course, it's not always clear what major role the Famous Unknown Guest Star is going to play, so there's some suspense left; and it may be that the talent of these actors and actresses outweighs the loss of suspense their presence creates. But I'd be lying if I said that it didn't affect my viewing and make me less likely to watch the rest of, say, "Close to Home" when I see the same guy who I know has been unmasked as a major killer on "Numbers" and was the dramatic lead witness to Sam Waterston's corruption case on "Law and Order".
So that might help me out. But there's a problem: I like most of these Famous Unknown Guest Stars, and I feel like they deserve a break, not punishment for their success. So let's say this: if you get famous enough to be a Famous Unknown, the networks should be encouraged, perhaps through tax incentives, to either give you a major regular role on one of their procedurals - after all, everyone's used to you hanging around those shows anyway – or even a procedural of your own, where you can interview a new series of Unknown Guest Stars shooting for their own Famous status.
Of course, that means there'll be even more shows for me to watch.