Of Course the Special Guest Star Did It!

Mary Kay Place
Mary Kay Place: But she seems so pleasant!
I hate that when an actor, especially a female one, reaches a certain age (*cough* 40 *cough*), his or her employability drops like a body wearing cement shoes in the ocean. It’s as if Hollywood doesn’t want us to know older people exist.

But there’s one place where I think veteran actors don’t belong: crime procedurals on TV. I can’t tell you how many times the mystery has been ruined for me on those shows (OK, three in the last week alone), even before the opening credits are over, because I’d see the “special guest star” billing followed by the likes of Brian Dennehy or Mary Kay Place. The minute those star’s names appear, I say to my husband, “S/he did it.” I don’t need to know who they play or what the case is about. They did it. Producers would not pay top money for high-caliber, award-winning character actors just to give them one scene on the witness stand spouting expositional information.

In the show that had Place as the murderer (I won’t say which it is in case you haven’t seen it), she was the mother of the lead suspect, but had no lines in the first scenes she appeared in. She was just fluttering in the background, wringing her hands and giving worried looks at her son being grilled by police. After two scenes like this, I was practically screaming at my TV: “Come on! Mary Kay Place did it! She’s not an extra. Who are you trying to fool?!” Forty-five minutes later, she got her big moment when she was revealed as the killer, but I was off eating ice cream or flipping through a magazine, because I’d already figured that out at top of show.

Gregory Itzin
Gregory Itzin: He’s been very, very bad.
This trend is unfortunate because the writing is sometimes good and I wouldn’t be able to guess the culprit’s identity so often if not for the casting. If a less recognizable actor had played Place’s role in that one show, I probably wouldn’t have even paid attention to her in the beginning when she’s mostly in the background.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that actors don’t have to be famous for me to recognize them. Since I watch way too much TV, I’m familiar with those respected thespians who may not be household names but work all the time. If Gregory Itzin shows up on a crime show? More likely than not, he did it. Michael Massee? Guilty. Currie Graham? Get a warrant for his car!

Barry Shabaka Henley
Barry Shabaka Henley: Not starring as a cop? Villain!
There are other tells that point toward the guilty party in police procedurals. If a character hasn’t been declared a suspect and the show is more than halfway over, that person did it. It’s not going to be the guy the cops drag down to the station in the first ten minutes. The person who acts most bereaved by someone’s death? Killer! In a show I saw two weeks ago, the father of a murdered girl could not stop crying when he had to identify her body. I know that’s an awful thing to have to do, and his reaction was probably realistic, but the way the camera stayed on him while he was shaking and snot was coming out of his nose made me think he was guilty. And I was right. Oh, and the fact he was played by veteran actor Barry Shabaka Henley tipped me off, too.

If I sound like a grouch begrudging these actors a paycheck, that is definitely not my intention. I want them to keep working, but maybe producers need to stop pigeonholing them or provide meatier roles that aren’t bad guys on crime shows.

Elyse is a freelance writer/editor who likes soup and the Bee Gees, but not piña coladas or getting caught in the rain. She also blogs at Pop Culture Nerd and tweets as @popculturenerd.


  1. Ron Phillips

    Well this falls all the way back to Columbo, you know. And while I can without a doubt tell you who the killer is from credits alone, the joy of Columbo is of course Columbo. His dogged nature and deceptive tactics to unveil the killer. Columbo capitolized on this obvious reveal that I no show after has been able to capture.

    Shows like Monk to Law and Order: CI have come close, enjoyable chases all doggedly pursuing the known killer so the detective, the true star, can put the pieces together in the final act.

    I’m not sure what show you’re refering, but writers should know any attempted subterfuge when a celebrity guest star is on the stage is wasted space.

  2. Terrie Farley Moran

    One of the things I love about Murder She Wrote (Hallmark Movie Channel has a MSW marathon on July 4th.) is that among the guests in nearly every show were some well known actors which kind of blurred the line.

  3. salonpricelists.com

    That is definitely not my intention I want them to keep working, but maybe producers need to stop pigeonholing them or provide meatier roles.

Comments are closed.