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Vulture Droppings of the Week: Sitcoms with Movie Stars in the Lead Role

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Its Friday! Which means it’s time once again for the weekly round-up of my favorite pop culture atrocities, misfires and entertaining train wrecks. This week’s theme:  Sitcoms with Movie Stars in the Lead Role!

Although this does seem to be changing big time, movie stars usually aren’t interested in doing TV. It’s traditionally been your Katherine Heigl‘s or John Krasinski‘s who are desperate to break into movies. The movie star who is interested in a series is usually at a point in their career where they just want a stable well-payed gig. Their agent finds them what seems to be the right vehicle, the network bosses offer a boatload of money and there you have it: a surefire recipe for disaster.

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1. ELLEN BURSTYN IN ‘THE ELLEN BURSTYN SHOW’ (1986-1987)

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In her autobiography Lessons in Becoming Myself, Ellen Burstyn, the star of such classic films as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and The Exorcist, admits that the reasons she agreed to do a sitcom were financial, citing the fact that she was going to lose her house if she didn’t come up with some “quick cash.” The Ellen Burstyn Show was going to be her solution. It premiered in the fall of the 1986-1987 season.

The following excerpt is from the original New York Times review by John J. O’Connor:

Ellen Burstyn is a remarkable woman… In addition to being a gifted actress, she is a writer and lecturer, with two honorary doctoral degrees. Ms. Burstyn clearly deserves a remarkable series. Unfortunately, The Ellen Burstyn Show, having its premiere on ABC tomorrow at 8:30 P.M., is more like nicely serviceable. In the kind of multi-generational formula that television is partial to these days, the show features Ms. Burstyn as a college professor living in the sort of Baltimore home that, surrounded by the requisite white picket fence, looks enviable in magazine layouts. Living with Ellen Brewer, as she is called, is her mother, Sydney (Elaine Stritch); her recently divorced daughter, Molly (Megan Mullally), and Molly’s 5 1/2-year-old son, Nick (Jesse Tendler).

NBC put the show’s fate into the hands of its lead-in program, Lucille Ball‘s Life with Lucy. Unfortunately, Ball didn’t equal ratings magic anymore. Nobody tuned in and the critics attacked. Life was put to sleep after only five episodes, while Ellen made it to the more impressive number of thirteen. Burstyn later admitted that television just wasn’t her medium. Things didn’t work out so bad, though. Mullally would win two Emmys twelve years later for her work on Will & Grace (maybe an even stupider sitcom); Stritch would win a Tony for her one-woman show At Liberty; and Burstyn finally did get her house paid off with her earnings from NBC.

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2.  BETTE MIDLER IN ‘BETTE’ (2000)

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In Bette, Bette Midler was cleverly cast as a movie star adored by her fans. It premiered on CBS in the fall of 2000 to excellent ratings (over sixteen millions viewers). It also landed with a storm of good press, with some newspapers touting her as the “Divine Miss Sitcom Star.” Like most shining stars, however, the show faded fast. According to Variety, Kevin Dunn, who played her husband, bowed out before the season was over. Rumor has it that he did not get along with Midler. To make matters worse, the ratings quickly dropped to nine million and then went even lower from there. CBS had ordered a full season of the show (22 episodes) but, in the end, only 18 were filmed.

In March, the network pulled the show early for undisclosed reasons. The world will never know what was contained in those remaining two episdoes that went unaired (not that it’s a bad thing). In 2001, Midler scored a $1 million book deal to write a tell all behind-the-scenes account about the failure of her sitcom, but the deal was later cancelled due to corporate concerns. For whatever reason Bette got the boot, it doesn’t seem like a lack of guest stars was one of them, as this promo highlighting an appearance by Oprah makes clear:

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3. GEENA DAVIS IN ‘THE GEENA DAVIS SHOW’ (2000)

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After the double-career trouble of Cutthroat Island and The Long Kiss Goodnight, Geena Davis sort of disappeared for while. She finally resurfaced with The Geena Davis Show, which, like Bette, also premiered in the fall of 2000 on ABC. The idea was to have a Sex and the City-like Manhattan socialite’s life turn upside down when she becomes a suburban housewife. The rest of the cast includes Peter Hornton (Thirtysomething), Mimi Rogers (what hasn’t she been in?), Harland Williams (Half Baked) and John Francis Daley (a few months after wrapping up work on Freaks and Geeks). For all its conventionality and sitcom cliches, the show got pretty good reviews, especially Davis herself.

LA Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg wrote:

The Geena Davis Show is no cutting-edge Buffalo Bill (a short-lived, dark sitcom from the eighties), its familyhood premise rooted like an oak in decades of formulaic TV. It is sharply written and quite funny at times, though, inviting Davis–who is just terrific–to bare her ample comedic endowments while sunning in the glow of prime time. Teddie Cochran (Davis) is flawed in the first several episodes, but lovably so, and even though at one point she belches loudly, disliking her is not an option.

The show eventually morphed into a generic vehicle for Davis, becoming less Sex and the City and more, well, Bette. The ratings dipped and it got the axe after one season. Davis would later suffer a similar fate with Commander in Chief. Perhaps, much like Midler and Burstyn, she should stick to doing movies (as long as they don’t involve pirates or Sam Jackson).

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