When Guests Become Problematic

23 BIZ Guest Star Illustration
Illustration: John Ritter

How TV's guest-star contests have morphed into a nonsensical parade in which one-offs and repeaters march for the same prizes.

The Emmy races for guest acting in comedy and drama have become the most bizarre and uneven competitions of the season. And frankly, it's getting a little hard to take them seriously.

First, they feature big names in small roles like Glee three-fer/Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow and TV stalwart John Stamos, who did four episodes of Glee and one of Law & Order: SVU this season. "It used to be you couldn't get movie stars to do guest roles, but now they jump at the chance," says Stamos.

Well, sure they do. They get paid handsomely, and producers covet them. "They're dying to hire extremely well-known people -- it's fabulous for ratings," says John Lithgow, who won last year for his 12-episode arc as a serial killer on Dexter and contends for this year's comedy guest award as Neil Patrick Harris' long-lost dad in two episodes of How I Met Your Mother.

This year, scores of actors hope to emulate Lithgow's guesting success. For the four ballot categories (outstanding guest actor and actress in drama and comedy), there are 356 eligible contenders on the guest list, up from 313 two years ago. You could say about Emmy guest-star gigs what Paltrow's sex-education teacher on Glee says about one-night stands: "Everybody's got a random."

And everybody has a reason to guest: to boost their IMDb awards tally -- guest actresses on Law & Order: SVU have earned noms 70 percent of the time since 2001 and have won every time since 2007 -- and maximize career exposure with minimum commitment. "Doing Glee for four episodes was perfect," says Stamos. "It kept me alive until my next TV gig. It showed people I could do something different."

Jeremy Davies agrees. The actor first won fame guesting as scientist Daniel Faraday on ABC's Lost and killed it this year as Justified's wicked hillbilly Dickie Bennett. He's now a lock to return for the FX drama's third season. "It was no minor honor for a misfit like myself," says Davies of the role.

But here's the problem: There is no limit on the number of episodes that define a "guest." So this means Davies, with as much or more screen time as Justified supporting-actor contender Walton Goggins, is up against Stamos' one episode of SVU.

The academy's attempt to keep pace with the primetime pop-in-star-palooza began in 1993, when the guest categories were created to remedy a similar unequal-competition problem. Until then, the only available acting categories were lead and supporting, so guest stars had to compete with their hosts as supporting. Awkward! So the guest Emmy began, with a limit of three episodes per contestant. In 1997, that was raised to six episodes. In 2007, episode limits were removed. The result has been new forms of illogical competition. This year, one-time Memphis Beat guest Giovanni Ribisi must compete against 13-episode Mad Men player Robert Morse. To have the option of submitting for a guest Emmy, guest stars must be billed as such on a show.

But guests can also choose to enter the race as supporting contenders. Justified's breakout star Margo Martindale, whose character died in the season finale, is doing just that, perhaps because Dexter's 12-episode guest Julia Stiles appears more unbeatable than supporting front-runner Kelly Macdonald of Boardwalk Empire. Shameless' Joan Cusack, with a meaty 11-show run, is doing the same and submitting herself as a guest. Call it "the Lithgow effect."

"It's strange," says Lithgow of his guest win for Dexter. "It was almost unjust winning an award for that because good Lord, altogether I did 10 hours' work on How I Met Your Mother. And yet I'm a guest actor again." Ironically, Lithgow's big reveal in both roles was identical: A door opens, and there he is -- a killer dad on Dexter and a biological dad on How I Met Your Mother. "I looked exactly the same," says Lithgow.

Ultimately, says Davies, it's about the work, not labels. "We can debate the most honorable title, but in the end, the map is not the territory, right?"

Guest Emmys can refresh everyone's craft, making shows better and telecasts more star-studded. But if the academy is going to keep rewarding famous names, why not change the category to "outstanding famous guest and Emmy telecast guest too, we hope." Or more simply, it should add a category for long arcs and call it "outstanding guest who just won't go away."