Friday, April 18, 2014

Recognizing Cameos & Bit Players: Blessing or a Curse?

When watching a certain movie, suddenly an actor or actress appears that you recognize from something else. For example, in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the master of Lake-Town is revealed to be…Stephen Fry, well know British Actor, who I had just discovered from the old British series Jeeves and Wooster.  Part of me was excited that I knew who the actor was: “That’s…that’s Jeeves!  Wow cool!”  But at the same time, it brought me out of the story.  I wasn’t thinking about the actions that the Master of Lake-Town was making, I was thinking about how I knew the actor. 

This can be a good thing.  Charles Shaughnessy appeared in the Veronica Mars Episode “Lord of the Pi’s.”  In it, he played, a British man with an air of cool, which coincidentally is the same character he played in the Nanny.  That experience is one that conformed to expectations.  Essentially he was playing an expy of Maxwell Sheffield.  When bit players play a takeoff of their original role, sometimes it can be very funny and very welcome.  Another example is Reginald VelJohnson, who has cameo role as a cop on Chuck in the episode, “Chuck versus Santa Clause.”  He also plays a cop on Family Matters, and, as it turns out, Die Hard, which was the episode this episode was homage to.  It may be unfortunate, but we expect these people to be in those roles, and when they turn up in those roles, it gives us satisfaction and we accept it as part of the plot.

But it can also be distracting.  When any TV show uses a celebrity just to use them, it becomes more that the actor is appearing rather than an interesting character.  On the one hand, it probably won’t be a big deal for many fans of the actor.  For regular viewers, they probably appreciate at least some effort to make the characters more relevant to the story.  Shows that featured athletes or musicians, who are not natural actors, or cameo heavy shows like Will and Grace service the cameos too well, to the point that it overwhelms the plot.  All we can think about is the cameo of the famous guy or girl from the show.  In Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide, BMX bike star Mat Hoffman makes an appearance in an episode of “Dares.”  In it Mat Hoffman convinces Ned Bigby not to try a dangerous stunt as a dare…right before doing it himself.  Mat Hoffman’s appearance is distracting and the only thing you can think about is the cameo.  Friends did an episode after the Super Bowl, called “The One After The Super Bowl.”  Instead of doing something big in terms of plot, instead it was an episode which highlighted cameos.  Julia Roberts, Brook Shields, Jean-Claude Van-Damme all make an appearance in the episode.  Some of course are more distracting than others, but all serve to highlight “there’s a famous person in this scene” instead of servicing the plot. 

Cameos and bit players certainly have their place. There needs to be good actors and actresses for small roles in movies or for featured guest spots on TV.  But to insert celebrity for the sake of celebrity can be distracting and not beneficial to the plot of the show.  To the notoriety of the show or movie, yes, it can be very successful.  But on the other hand, it can derail or completely stop the plot, and as such may not in the best interest of the overall arc of the show.  

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