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When Movie Stars Hide in Plain Sight on TV

More and more big name stars are landing on TV procedurals. (We forgive you for not noticing.)
  • The procedural all-stars: Oscar faves Angela Bassett in 9-1-1 and Hilary Swank in Away. (Photos: Fox, Netflix)
    The procedural all-stars: Oscar faves Angela Bassett in 9-1-1 and Hilary Swank in Away. (Photos: Fox, Netflix)

    In July, it was announced that Maria Bello was nearing an exit from NCIS. The news itself was actually about her move to The Gersh Agency for representation, but you wouldn't have known that from the reactions on social media. The real news was that an actress of Bello's caliber — who has headlined her own network television series, been a cast member on ER, and appeared in Academy Award-winning films — had been quietly co-starring on a long-running CBS procedural for the past three seasons without the cognisenti even taking notice.

    The point? While NCIS is a big show, something like Maria Bello's involvement should have made headlines. But it didn't. This "surprise star" hiding in plain sight on television phenomenon doesn't just happen on network television, either. Fun fact: In 2018, two-time Academy Award winner Sean Penn starred in The First, a Hulu original series most have never heard of. It involved going to space.

    Fast forward to 2020 and Away, another TV series that involves going to space — one that stars Hilary Swank.

    That a two-time Academy Award winner would appear on a television show isn't the shocking part. If it's good enough for Al Pacino and Nicole Kidman, why not Hilary Swank? The difference is that the current norm is for A-listers to take the prestige, limited series route. Think Big Little Lies, The Morning Show, and Little Fires Everywhere, for example. Under that model, it's no surprise when an A-list actress such as Meryl Streep shows up and gets ice cream thrown at her by Reese Witherspoon. High profile, A-list stunt casting is one of the primary attractions in such productions.

    Much like the Witherspoon-iverse, the vast array of Ryan Murphy-produced shows don't tend to hide their big names away, either. The goal on those shows appears to be for Murphy to work with every actor he's either idolized (Gwyneth Paltrow) or quietly admired (Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Angela Bassett) in a Pokemon-style quest to acquire them all. But again, with shows like American Horror Story, The Politician, or the upcoming Ratched, the big names are the draw and the expectation for the entire ensemble.

    Which is why it's still bizarre that for the past three seasons Murphy has also been responsible for Angela Bassett casually co-starring in the FOX first-responder ensemble 9-1-1. Her face has at least been on all the promotional materials, but that doesn't make it any less strange to see the Academy Award-nominated actress fielding emergency phone calls on your local FOX affiliate week in and week out. Why aren't we talking about that? At least when Academy Award winner Viola Davis had her own ABC series in How To Get Away With Murder, we discussed it at length. Davis starred on Murder for six seasons. 90 episodes. Still, that will never be as strange as Angela Bassett being part of an ensemble series with Peter Krause and Ryan Guzman.

    On a fundamental level, all of this is great. Let's normalize major stars working in television. Normalize the strangeness that is having white-hot young talent like Tessa Thompson as the fifth lead on Westworld. Normalize streaming shows literally sending Oscar winners into space. But the normalization that is missing is simply knowing that these show roles exist in the larger picture of these actors' careers. Or an acknowledgment in the culture of just what a big deal it is that this kind of talent is being put to work on rather humble network TV shows. As amusing as it is to find out that an actor has been hiding in plain sight on a television show, what good is it to keep them hidden?

    Despite her mother's wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB's image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya's your girl.

    TOPICS: Hilary Swank, 9-1-1, Away, NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, Angela Bassett, Maria Bello, Nia Long, Reese Witherspoon, Ryan Murphy, Sean Penn