The fall TV season has begun in earnest, with the bulk of the new shows launching this week. And there's a curious trend: Actors who found success earlier in their career, only to follow that with failure, are getting another prime-time shot.
Tonight begins the new ABC sitcom Cougartown, about a newly single mother dating again after going through a divorce. (A side note: If you don't understand the slang term "cougar," this show probably isn't for you.) The comedy marks the return of Courteney Cox, who became a household name in the 1990s as part of the megahit NBC sitcom Friends.
In the risk-averse world of television, it should come as no surprise that an actress with a hit under her belt would land another job. But Cougartown isn't Cox's first starring role after Friends; she played a sleazy tabloid editor a couple of years ago in the short-lived FX series Dirt.
Dirt never amounted to much in the ratings. And that raises an interesting question: How come the failure on Dirt didn't kill Cox's chances to get another show? This is Hollywood, after all — home to the saying, "You're only as good as your last picture."
And Cox isn't exactly an aberration. At least seven different actors headlining new fall shows have careers that roughly follow the same pattern. Everybody Loves Raymond's Patricia Heaton and Frasier's Kelsey Grammer are back this year in their own shows, even though they tanked together two years ago in the TV-news sitcom Back to You.
And then there's Julianna Margulies, formerly of ER. She's back this season with the new legal drama The Good Wife, which shouldn't be confused with her last legal show, Canterbury's Law, which lasted six episodes last year. Good luck, Good Wife.
Let's get a little more catty. Does being just one member of an ensemble show like ER or Friends really qualify an actor for stardom? It's as if the networks expect these people to coast into viewers' hearts on the fumes of goodwill generated by their old shows.
Perhaps networks are willing to gamble on these actors because failure on TV happens so swiftly that nobody recalls it. I mean, do you remember Canterbury's Law?
The truth is it's much easier to market a show around a familiar face. It helps cut through the clutter of the fall season. But an easy sell doesn't necessarily make for a good show. This fall, the networks may find that out the hard way.