Falling special guest star

Showstopper or killer? Britney Spears slides into a sitcom.

For better or worse, and for more than 10 years, the creators of TV-obsessed website jumptheshark.com have devoted themselves to cataloguing the moments when previously decent television shows go south. The site lists common ways a show can lose its way.

Among the categories discussed is a practice that most shows use at some point in search of ratings: stunt-casting, described by the site as using a “special guest star.”

Search “sitcom guest star” online and most of the top results relay the news that you’ve probably already heard and probably didn’t care about when you heard it. This coming Monday, media fixation Britney Spears will appear on the reliably amusing CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother. The show finished 61 out of 142 (as per industry-standard Neilsen ratings) shows at the end of the 2006-07 season, according to hollywoodreporter.com.

HIMYM is getting some buzz as it makes its post-writers’ strike return to the airwaves (the Spears episode will be the second new HIMYM to air post-strike); the erstwhile pop star is getting a chance to show the public she’s not always a crazy, sad trainwreck.

The episode will likely suck though the show will probably garner continued middling ratings. Spears will go back to doing whatever it is she does and HIMYM star Neil Patrick Harris will continue being hilarious.

Of course, the upcoming episode doesn’t necessarily have to suck or be shark-jump bait. It could even be funny. Sitcoms and dramas alike have featured stunt-casting and lived---with dignity---to tell the tale. All the HIMYM writers need to do to make this episode succeed is carefully observe one or all of the following rules:
Surprise us: Special guest stars often cameo as themselves. The device is often clunky, like when Blossom and Six met C+C Music Factory on Blossom. Remember that one? Er...neither do we. But having performers play themselves can work. Smart shows let their featured star riff on his or her existing persona, while giving it a twist. Ricky Gervais’s BBC sitcom Extras did this particularly well, allowing stars such as Patrick Stewart and Daniel Radcliffe to shine playing distorted, lecherous versions of themselves. Ben Kingsley’s delightful interactions with aspiring film producer Christopher on The Sopranos and Marilyn Manson’s song about nutrition on cartoon Clone High also stand out.
A special guest star must be able to act---be more than ratings-grabbing window-dressing: In some cases, said star lacks said skills. When Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas had to work with Paris Hilton as a cheating girlfriend in an early-series episode, he didn’t have a lot to work with. Not surprisingly, the episode was lame. But if you give them something interesting to do, many stars will deliver. Friends was actually pretty good at this---Bruce Willis was great as the protective dad of Ross’s college-aged girlfriend, for example. Also, watch for Matt Damon’s enthusiastic portrayal of a hetero-in-the-closet on Will & Grace and Jeff Goldblum’s turn as actor Troy McClure’s agent on The Simpsons---done before the show’s stunt-casting got lazy and excessive.

Take cues from Arrested Development: A clever sitcom, Arrested Development followed both of the above rules faithfully, showing how much fun thoughtful, creative stunt-casting is to watch. The show’s memorable guest stars included Liza Minnelli---who played the fawning, vertigo-suffering suitor of much-younger Buster---and Charlize Theron, who did an arc as the British mentally disabled fiancee of protagonist Michael. AD’s piece de resistance: Rocky star Carl Weathers’s recurrent cameos. Weathers played “himself”---a penny-pinching acting coach who collects random food scraps so that he can get a “stew going.” Check out Judge Reinhold’s cameo as the host of fake court TV show Mock Trial with J. Reinhold.

Cast Ben Stiller: Sure, Stiller’s film career is spotty and he can be annoying. But as a TV guest star he’s a consistent, reliable ringer. He gave a memorable performance on arguably the best episode of Freaks and Geeks, as a Secret Service agent protecting the vice president. He’s also shown up in Undeclared, Mr. Show, and Extras. His spot on Arrested Development as bread-loving magician Tony Wonder, was sitcom 

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