I was going to write up a post devoted solely to last night’s episode of “The Good Wife,” if only so I could begin with the line “just as soon as I sing the the ‘Growing Pains’ theme song.” But I was inspired by Wallace Shawn’s turn as Lamond Bishop’s intimidating lawyer to instead write about how well that show, and some others on TV right now, use guest stars.
When you think of Wallace Shawn, you do not think “intimidating.” Maybe you think of him barking out “Inconceivable!” as the overconfident Vizzini in “The Princess Bride,” or cowering in fear as Rex in the “Toy Story” movies, or having dinner with Andre. It was against type casting, and it worked perfectly because Shawn is a great actor, and because “The Good Wife” knows what to do with great actors.
On the long list of things “The Good Wife” does well, casting and writing guest characters is near the very top. The show already has a half-dozen Emmy nominations for its guest stars, including a win for Martha Plimpton, and it consistently gives its guests roles they can sink their teeth into.
The show has a couple of built-in advantages. It films in New York, which means it has access to a deep reservoir of theater actors and other types who won’t go to LA, Vancouver or Toronto for a week’s work but will happily wander over to hang with Julianna Margulies and company. Also, it’s a legal procedural in an era of cop and doctor shows, and of the Holy Trinity of TV professions, lawyer shows usually provide the greatest opportunity for guest stars to shine. On cop shows, everyone has to be a suspect, which means nobody can be too interesting or you’ll suspect them over the others, and TV doctors tend to move from patient to patient too quickly for any one to register that much.
But even considering those advantages – and “The Good Wife” is far from the only series filming in New York these days – Robert and Michelle King and their writers do an outstanding job of creating interesting foils for the lawyers at Lockhart-Gardner, whether eccentric judges whose quirks have to be strategically accounted for, rival lawyers who get to be just as clever as Alicia and her colleagues (and who generally get to be weirder), or political figures causing trouble in Eli’s corner of the show. (And remember, Alan Cumming began as a guest star before proving indispensable.) When I tune into “The Good Wife” and see the name of a character actor I like in the guest credits, I never worry that the show won’t make good use of them; I just look forward to seeing what they get to do. Sometimes, it’s wildly against type like Shawn, sometimes it’s to type like Kyle MacLachlan’s recent stint as a strange federal prosecutor, and sometimes it’s a mixture of both, like Michael J. Fox as the devious Louis Canning, a character who mixes in bits of Alex P. Keaton and Mike Flaherty, as well as Fox’s real-life health problems, while also making him a shameless heel.
Guest casting used to be the thing that drove a lot of TV shows. Pre-“ER,” for instance, medical dramas often featured the patients as prominently as the doctors, and there was more room for hidden anthology shows like “The Love Boat,” which had a regular cast who existed to support whatever Charo or Don Adams were up to that week.
Now, there are shows that use guest stars well – “Justified” has a particular knack for it, whether with season-long villains like Margo Martindale, one-off characters like Alan Ruck’s runaway dentist or occasional players like Stephen Root’s gun-toting judge; and the late, great “30 Rock” (which also took advantage of its New York-ness) was brilliant at getting comic mileage out of both the expected (Chris Parnell, Alan Alda) and unexpected (Jon Hamm, Oprah) – but more often than not these days, guest stars exist to move the plot along and provide an excuse for the regular characters to interact.
“The Good Wife” doesn’t skimp on either plot or moments between the main cast – last night’s episode, for instance, had several strong Will/Diane moments, as well as good material for Alicia and Kalinda – yet it still manages to treat the guest characters as figures so interesting that we could easily imagine following them around for a few weeks rather than focusing on what Alicia is up to. (Whenever Carrie Preston shows up as the delightful Elsbeth Tascioni, it essentially feels like a spin-off hidden within a regular “Good Wife” episode.)
So while it’s somewhat surprising to imagine Wallace Shawn as the scariest man in Chicago, it’s not surprising in the slightest that “The Good Wife” would give such an entertaining role to a guest star like that.
So what current shows do you guys think use guest stars the best? Does “Bob’s Burgers” automatically qualify for Jon Hamm as a talking British toilet? Other than “Justified,” are there are any crime procedurals you feel do better by their guest stars than others? And is there a 2013 equivalent to “Will & Grace,” where you come to dread any episode built around a guest star?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org