We live in the era of “Peak TV.” There is an endless amount of high quality scripted television that has all the production value and clout of feature films. This jump in quality has done what would have once been unthinkable: draw major movie stars to the small screen.
They’re everywhere now: Anthony Hopkins on Westworld, Matthew McConaughey on True Detective, Claire Danes on Homeland, and Winona Ryder on Stranger Things. It’s no longer the sign that an actor’s career is fading–in fact it can often serve as a comeback.
That being said, not every major star gets a gig on an amazing show. For every new hit with an A-lister, there are other high-profile actors whose luck isn’t as good. There are many great actors who have been on truly awful TV shows.
Whether it was to put food on the table before they became household names, or a prestige project that crashed and burned, each actor on this list chose poorly.
Some shows are outright disasters, while others are entertaining train wrecks. Many are utterly forgettable, but some are so awful they’re impossible forget. Both are included on our list of 16 A-List Actors Who Appeared In Horrible TV Shows.
16. George Clooney in Sunset Beat
Before George Clooney broke out on the medical drama E.R. (and popularized the Caesar haircut), he played a hirsute police officer on the ill-fated Sunset Beat, which lasted a mere two episodes in 1990. If you’ve ever seen a clip, it’s not hard to see why.
Sunset Beat had a truly goofy premise, as Clooney revealed in his recent Netflix interview with David Letterman: “I played an undercover cop on a Harley during the day, and a rock star at night.”
It gets better. Clooney’s character was named Chic Chesbro (for reals), and he was full of cringe-inducing quips like “I keep my hair long so no one mistakes me for you or Dan Quayle.” Cool!
15. Robin Williams in The Crazy Ones
The late Robin Williams had such an exalted, varied film career that many forgot it was a television sitcom that gave him his first big break. Mork and Mindy introduced his zany improvisational comedic skills to the world. He rose to the A-list quickly, and his body of work speaks for itself.
So it was odd seeing Williams join Sarah Michelle Gellar on the stale CBS comedy The Crazy Ones, where they played father and daughter who work together at an advertising agency. The show’s premise revolved around Gellar’s character constantly trying to keep her scatterbrained father in line.
It was formulaic and lukewarm at best.
14. Emma Stone in In Search of the Partridge Family
Reality TV contestants rarely make it to the upper echelons of Oscar-winning actors (thanks to her performance in La La Land), but Emma Stone proved the exception to the rule back in 2004.
Stone made her television debut on the VH1 reality series In Search of the Partridge Family, competing with a host of young hopefuls to star in a reboot of the classic 1970s musical sitcom.
Her onscreen audition included a full-throated rendition of Meredith Brook’s ’90s iht and a duet on Pat Benatar’s “We Belong”.
Despite giving it her best shot, Stone didn’t make the final cut.
13. Jim Carrey in The Duck Factory
10 years before he became a household name in 1994’s Ace Ventura Pet Detective, Jim Carrey starred in The Duck Factory, an NBC sitcom that aired for only 13 episodes.
Carrey played Skip Tarkenton, a fresh-behind-the-ears cartoonist trying to make it big in Hollywood. However his youthful enthusiasm is tested after he’s hired by a struggling animation studio who produces the decidedly unfunny cartoon “The Dippy Duck Show.”
Carrey gave it his all, but he couldn’t overcome stilted writing, an obnoxious laugh track, and co-stars that couldn’t compete with his comedic gifts. It’s unfortunate that The Duck Factory was so bad given its interesting premise (one could imagine a modern update doing well on premium cable), but Carrey probably sees it as a mere speed bump on his way to stardom.
12. Shailene Woodley in The Secret Life of the American Teenager
Shailene Woodley has become one of the most notable up and coming actresses in Hollywood thanks to well-received performances in films like The Descendants, The Faults in Our Stars, The Spectacular Now, the Divergent franchise, and the hit HBO series Big Little Lies.
We’re sure Woodley is glad such praise has glossed over the ABC Family series The Secret Life of the American Teenager, which was preachy and absolutely ridiculous.
Woodley played a melodramatic teenage mom torn between her baby daddy and some other generic guy. The show was a messy teen soap that tried to scare teens off from having relations before adulthood. Woodley’s performance is utterly wooden, showing no signs of the star she would one day become.
11. Jamie Foxx in Beat Shazam
Jamie Foxx is an Oscar-winning actor, known for his performances in films like Ray, Collateral, Django Unchained, and Baby Driver. Now he’s a game show host for the Fox series Beat Shazam.
Yes, its true. One of Hollywood’s most high-profile actors emcees a corny game show based on the popular music app.
This bizarre career move has many asking: why?
For his part, Foxx says Beat Shazam was a strategic move to diversify his career: “Anything he or she wants to do, there’s a great chance to get it on because people are thirsting for this kind of entertainment,” noting he gets to use both his comedic and musical chops.
10. Demi Moore in The Master
The Master was an awful ’80s show that capitalized on the surging popularity of ninjas in pop culture. It didn’t work.
Lee Van Cleef played an elderly martial arts expert who tooled across the country in a customized van with his wise cracking sidekick Max Keller (Tim Van Patten) and their pet hamster (seriously), fighting crime wherever it reared its ugly head.
Cleef was out of shape, making for a thoroughly unconvincing ninja. That his stunt double looked nothing like him didn’t help. And Patten’s one-liners were cringeworthy.
Moore played a damsel in distress that the duo rescued.
It wasn’t her finest moment, and to say her love scenes with Patten lacked chemistry is an understatement.
9. Patrick Stewart in Blunt Talk
Patrick Stewart was an acclaimed stage actor for many years, but it was TV that made him a star. His role as Captain Jean Luc-Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation has endeared him to sci-fi fans across the world.
Since then, he has lent his golden touch to a variety of projects, including the X-Men movie franchise, as well as many cameos on animated comedy series, including Robot Chicken and Family Guy.
Stewart re-teamed with Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane for the live-action TV comedy Blunt Talk, which featured Stewart as a bumbling British newscaster who tries to break into the American market.
Not even Stewart and MacFarlane’s combined talents could salvage a show that tried too hard to be edgy. While it was fun watching such a cultured actor use blue humor and engage in shocking behavior, it never felt fully realized.
8. Uma Thurman (and Everyone Else) in The Slap
Based on the novel by Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap centered on a group of family and friends whose relationships were rocked after Harry Apostolou (Zachary Quinto) slapped a youngster at a birthday party.
This infuriates the child’s parents (played by Peter Sarsgaard and Thandie Newton), who take Harry to court. Each episode told the same story from the perspective of another cast member.
Despite an intriguing premise, The Slap was simply too pompous for its own good.
Not even its all-star cast (which also included Brian Cox, Blythe Danner, and Melissa George) could pull off likable characters. Thurman played Anouk, whose self-righteous, judgmental behavior made her borderline unwatchable.
7. Liam Neeson in Life’s Too Short
Between The Office, Extras, An Idiot Abroad, and The Ricky Gervais Show, Ricky Gervais has had an impressive run of TV hits. However his winning streak ran out with Life’s Too Short, a comedy that proved too mean-spirited and one-note to connect with viewers.
Despite its lackluster reputation the show, which starred Warwick Davis (Return of the Jedi, Willow, Leprechaun) as himself, did have one bright spot: an unexpected cameo from Liam Neeson who gave the show its most memorable and hilarious moment.
In it, Neeson (also playing himself) is trying to break into stand-up comedy, and is testing material with Davis and Gervais. His stone-faced delivery of “jokes” about him dying from fatal diseases horrifies his captive audience, who simply can’t believe what they’re hearing.
6. Jane Lynch in Hollywood Game Night
Jane Lynch is one of the funniest comedic actors in the business. She’s conquered films (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Best in Show) and TV (Glee, Party Down) with aplomb.
We’ll ask the same question we did with Jamie Foxx: why waste her talents on a sub-par game show like Hollywood Game Night? It just seems beneath her, somehow, and quite frankly, she looks uncomfortable in the role.
Watching an episode of the game show, isn’t the worst way you can spend an evening– each episode features an all-star cast of celebrities helping contestants– but the games are too easy to want to play along with, and the whole conceit feels forced.
5. Kathy Bates in Harry’s Law
Kathy Bates is no stranger to television. The star of hit films like Misery and Fried Green Tomatoes has had well received performances in several TV hits, including The Office, American Horror Story, and Feud.
Luckily those series overshadow her tenure on the NBC dramedy Harry’s Law, created by hit-and-miss producer David E. Kelley. Formulaic, dull and laced with meh jokes, Harry’s Law seemed lazy, lackluster, and just a general waste of Bates’ talents.
Don’t tell her that, though. Bates was fond of her character and blasted NBC over the cancellation, saying “I think they treated us like s***. They kicked us to the curb. They disrespected us; they disrespected our 7-11 million viewers.”
4. Sam Neill in Alcatraz
Whether he’s in blockbusters like Jurassic Park and The Hunt For Red October, arthouse thrillers like Dead Calm and The Piano, or even B horror films like Event Horizon and In The Mouth of Madness, Sam Neill’s sense of class and decorum always elevates the material.
Sadly, his acting abilities couldn’t salvage Alcatraz, a truly underwhelming Fox series that offered a supernatural spin on the infamous Californian coastal prison.
Neill played an FBI agent who knows a thing or two about why a former prisoner hasn’t aged a day since he was originally incarcerated in the early ’60s, but the show’s central mystery never offered much of a payoff, and there always seemed to be a more interesting series trapped inside its formulaic, dull exterior.
3. Sally Field in The Flying Nun
Sally Field has had a storied career, from her beginnings as America’s Sweetheart on the surfer comedy Gidget to her Emmy award-winning performance in Sybil and Academy Awards for Norma Rae, Places in The Heart and Lincoln. And then there’s The Flying Nun.
This curious sitcom, which aired from 1967-1970 featured Field as, well, uh, a flying nun. Her character Sister Bertrille (aka Elsie Ethrington) used her wind-sailing abilities to solve problems and aid the locals near her convent in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Critics hated the show, but viewers stuck with it, largely because of Field’s sunny screen presence, and less for the truly wacky, threadbare premise.
Fields is infamous for her 1984 Oscar acceptance speech, where she gushed about how the Academy “really liked me!” And it’s true. Not even starring in one of the goofiest TV series of all time could make anyone dislike Sally Field.
2. The Whole Cast in 9-1-1
Between American Horror Story, American Crime Story, and Glee, producer Ryan Murphy has a solid track record for creating popular series that are largely well-received by critics and audiences. But his over-the-top style backfired on the new Fox drama 9-1-1.
9-1-1 has suffered withering reviews, but even the most vicious critics say it’s the type of show you can’t look away from, even if you should. Even so, it’s clear the all-star cast – including Angela Bassett, Peter Krause, and Connie Britton – would be better served in projects that play to their strengths.
Instead we have a show that presents laughable scenarios like a cop wrestling a python:“You can’t punch it in the face, Buck — it’s a snake!” and a 911 operator admonishing a caller for their trite emergency: “Eat your nuggets, get some perspective, and get the hell off my line!”
1.Hugh Jackman in Viva Laughlin
The most infamous entry on our list, Viva Laughlin was a high concept CBS series about an entrepreneur (played by Ripley Holden) with dreams of opening a casino. He learns to be careful what you wish for, however, when his ex-business partner is murdered, and a police investigation (and rival casino owner played by Jackman) threatens his investment.
What made Viva Laughlin such a disaster were its awkwardly shoehorned musical numbers, which gave the whole show a hallucinatory quality that was beyond laughable. It only lasted two episodes, but even that was two too many.
Jackman clearly had a blast with his part, getting to show off his musical theater chops, but not even his gifts could save the dumpster fire of a series, which was ruthlessly (and deservedly) skewered by Joel McHale on The Soup. Luckily for Jackman, Holden bore the brunt of the jokes.
Are there any you’d add to this list? Let us know in the comments.
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