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The Best TV Guest Stars Ever — IndieWire Critics Survey

From "Justified" and "Deadwood," to "The Good Wife" and "The Grinder," TV critics weigh in on the guest stars who've made an impact.

Garry Shandling and David Duchovny in "The Larry Sanders Show."

Garry Shandling and David Duchovny in “The Larry Sanders Show.”



Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: Who has been the best guest star on a scripted show?

Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com

Wayne Brady showing up in body armor and riding a horse on Syfy’s post-apocalyptic disaster disaster “Aftermath” needs to be mentioned somewhere in this critics’ roundup, so here it is. But I’ll point out two from intentional comedies that come to mind. Timothy Olyphant’s short run on “The Grinder” as himself was fantastic and if I didn’t mention this my coworker Kaitlin would kill me. But my pick goes to David Duchovny, also as himself, on “The Larry Sanders Show.” We’d largely known Duchovny for his serious turn on “The X-Files,” but seeing him dive right into Larry’s sexual admirer was so damned good that we never looked at him the same. Especially in that towel.

Gail Pennington (@gailpennington), St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Margo Martindale might be too obvious, but what the heck; she makes any show better. Whether she’s billed as a guest actress or as recurring or as supporting, she routinely becomes my favorite character and the most memorable. “Justified” was never the same after Mags Bennett departed. “The Americans” couldn’t have a better handler than Claudia. Although Martindale is terrific at comedy, she’s most delicious when she’s vaguely evil. Her season of “The Good Wife,” pitting her against Alan Cumming’s Eli Gold, was a highlight of the series. Martindale should have been in more “Smash” (she could have played Marilyn!) and “Masters of Sex” (remember her in the pilot?) I’d watch her in anything, except, possibly, a revival of “The Millers.”

READ MORE: The Most Challenging Shows to Write About — IndieWire Critics Survey

Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox

One of my favorite things about watching 22-episode TV shows is the frantic recalibration that happens when a guest star drops by for a week, and everybody realizes that’s what the show’s been missing all along. Perhaps my favorite example of this came on “Taxi”, in its first season, when the show had several fantastic characters and a great premise… and then this guy named John who just didn’t have much of anything to his character. In an episode about a third of the way into the season, Christopher Lloyd — not yet famous at all — dropped by to play a burned out hippie preacher who turned up to officiate the wedding of immigrant Latka to a call girl, that he might not be deported. Lloyd had a spark, and his character (the “Reverend” Jim Ignatowski) had something no other show on TV did. He was what “Taxi” had been missing.

And yet the show didn’t add Lloyd properly to the cast until the Season 2 premiere. (John went off to wherever bland, replaceable sitcom characters go.) Then again, Jim got to be a part of the now immortal “What does a yellow light mean?” scene, so maybe it just took the show’s writers that long to come up with a joke that good.

Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire

I am a person who believes in a diversity of opinion, and the power of personal preference when it comes to these sorts of determinations… Except in this one case. I’m going to keep this simple: Anyone who does not pick Patrick Stewart’s Season 1 appearance in the Ricky Gervais series “Extras” is wrong. Sorry about that, folks. But that’s life. (Addendum: Ian McKellan’s own cameo is a VERY close second.)

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

My very first inkling of WHAT a guest star even was takes me back to the early 1970s when Davy Jones surprised Marcia Brady on “The Brady Bunch.” That was the first time I was aware of what power a “guest star” has on a TV show and subsequent water bubbler talk at my elementary school as we “Brady Bunch” addicts rehashed the entire swoon-worthy moment.

But my favorite hands down was and still is HBO’s “Extras” show as Andy Millman is tweaked a bit in song by David Bowie. Bowie is approachable, kind and well mannered in a really down-to-earth sweet performance. And then, wham! A hilarious send up of “The Little Fat Man With The Pug-Nosed Face,” as Ricky Gervais as Andy Millman is squirming a bit as his tedious issues with fame are made light by Bowie who will suffer no fools, but always with class.

“Extras” had a lot of great guest star moments, Kate Winslet, Patrick Stewart, and on, but I miss Bowie’s talent and cannot believe we live in a world without this man.

June Thomas (@junethomas), Slate

It seems unfair to compare any other show’s guest-star game to “The Good Fight’s.” It isn’t the core actors, characters, and settings that are most likely to remind the CBS All Access show’s viewers of its more widely seen network progenitor. It’s the feeling that one of the small planets from “The Good Wife’s” galaxy of regular guests might show up at any moment. Sure, in 2011 I complained that “The Good Wife” was juggling too many characters. Back then, I wanted to confiscate the Kings’ Rolodex. These days, the occasional appearance of a vaguely familiar judge or a detestable, truth-challenged lawyer lends the show an air of realism.

Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine

This one is a hair-splitting one, but Heather Locklear was billed as a “Special Guest Star” for her entire run as Amanda Woodward on “Melrose Place” and she was every version of the best. Best bitch. Best savior of a primetime soap that was about to be canceled after one season. Best mini-skirt, power suit-wearer. Best banger-on-desks. Best tormentor of Alison (Courtney Thorne-Smith). Yeah, she was even the best guest star on the “Melrose Place” reboot! And even though it was really just a contractual thing Aaron Spelling agreed to, and Amanda was vital to pretty much every storyline for six of the seven seasons the original “MP” existed, she will always be the one Special Guest Star who actually lived up to the “special” part.

Heather Locklear, "Melrose Place"

Heather Locklear, “Melrose Place”


Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

This one is just too difficult. You’re dealing with like 80 years of television here ad countless plausible definitions. So clearly the correct answer is William Holden from the “Hollywood At Last” episode of “I Love Lucy.” Or maybe it’s Burgess Meredith from “Time Enough At Last” from “The Twilight Zone.” Those are two very different types of “guest stars,” you see? They aren’t anything like a great multi-episode guest run like Keith Carradine as Wild Bill in “Deadwood” or the fine simian stylings of Kate the Capuchin who played Marcel on “Friends.” But what of the greatness of a one-episode showcase like Carrie Fisher on “30 Rock” or Bryan Cranston on “The X-Files”? And those aren’t anything like season-long big bad guest runs like Margo Martindale on “Justified” or Kevin Spacey on “Wiseguy” or Anthony Anderson on “The Shield.” And that’s not anything like a classic piece of animation guest voicing, like Character Actor Margo Martindale on “BoJack Horseman.” I think we can all agree, though, that the queen of guest stars is Heather Locklear, eternally billed as “Special Guest Star” on “Melrose Place.” In conclusion, my answer is Laurie Metcalfe from “Horace and Pete.”

Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Uproxx

In my long, long (as in months) participation in the Indiewire survey, this is easily the broadest question that’s ever been asked. Best guest star on a scripted show? From 70-odd years of scripted television? There are dozens and dozens of ways to answer it, and people with whom I could answer. Do I cheat and pick someone who was a cast regular but always listed as a guest star, like Cloris Leachman on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” or Martin Landau at the start of “Mission: Impossible”? Do I try to pick just one “Simpsons” guest voice, and is there any way to choose someone who isn’t Albert Brooks? (Nimoy’s brilliant in “Monorail,” but Brooks as Hank Scorpio is peak “Simpsons” guest acting.) Do I eliminate actors who were in multiple episodes to consider the platonic ideal of a guest appearance, or is that unfair to someone like Character Actress Margo Martindale, who won a deserved Emmy for killing with kindness as “Justified” big bad Mags Bennett? Should stars of anthology episodes — any of Burgess Meredith, Dennis Hopper, or William Shatner from “The Twilight Zone,” for instance — be eligible, or is that besides the point of the exercise? Should I lean on guest stars who played themselves well — everyone from William Holden on “I Love Lucy” to Howard Cosell on “Odd Couple” to Carl Weathers on “Arrested Development” (and how does one choose just one “Arrested Development” guest?!?!?!) — or spotlight a famous guest who submerged themselves in a character, like Robin Williams’ shattered widower on “Homicide: Life on the Street”? What do I do with actors who guested on a show in one classic role, then became castmembers later in a different classic role, like Harry Morgan on “MASH” or Dennis Franz on “Hill Street Blues”? If being a good “SNL” host counts, then how do we choose between Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin? And speaking of Baldwin, is it even possible to choose between, say, Carrie Fisher and Jon Hamm for best “30 Rock” guest ever?

There is no good answer to this question, but also no bad answer. In the end, I refuse to pick just one, so I’ll go with one each from drama and comedy. For the former, it’s Keith Carradine on “Deadwood,” whose four-episode stint as Wild Bill Hickok helped one of TV’s all-time greatest dramas mark the transition from the glorious Wild West of legend to the grubby reality of Al Swearengen and Seth Bullock, and whose delivery of the line, “Ma’am… listen to the thunder still gives me chills.” For comedy, I’m taking Sammy Davis Jr. playing himself on “All in the Family,” and planting a kiss on the stunned face of Archie Bunker. It’s one of the most iconic sitcom moments ever, and (unlike Lucy at the chocolate factory, Reverend Jim’s drivers test, et al) one that leans just as heavily on the guest star as on the series regular to be as perfect and memorable as it is.

Keith Carradine and Timothy Olyphant, "Deadwood"

Keith Carradine and Timothy Olyphant, “Deadwood”

Roscoe Produ/REX/Shutterstock

Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider

So this question is particularly hard because (1) the politics of what even constitutes a guest actor, and (2) of trying to define what “best” even means! But let me start with that second part first. To me, a great guest star is someone who makes sense within the context of the show (and isn’t brought in just as a flashy, sweeps kind of gimmick), and who you notice because they increase the show’s quality every time they are onscreen. Two people that fit the bill for me perfectly with those definitions were from the same show: Alan Cumming and Carrie Preston on “The Good Wife.”

There are a lot of things I liked about “The Good Wife,” but the quirky energy that both actors brought to the series always elevated the episodes they were in. The show became a little too reliant on using Cumming in the late seasons, but neither character ever overstayed their welcome. They stole every scene they were in, and helped make “The Good Wife” a cut above when they were a part of it. And yet, they didn’t overshadow the central storyline. They were the perfect definition of a guest, and both were rewarded with Emmys for it (not that that really means anything, but still!)

There are so many examples of great guest stars by that metric, and I’m sure my colleagues will mention a ton of others that I agree with. But Cumming and Preston always come to mind as being such delightful presences on that show, embodying the kind of “cherry on top” mentality that a great guest star role should ideally be.

Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), TVGuide.com

Timothy Olyphant, “The Grinder”: Are there technically better performances? Sure, but none has given me more joy than Olyphant’s, and I’m certainly not going to pass up the opportunity to bemoan one of the greatest injustices of recent TV history: “The Grinder’s” cancellation. Olyphant is obviously not the first to play a fictionalized version of himself and he won’t be the last, but his absurd, meta self-sendup was so delectably surreal it may as well have been born from Garry Shandling’s brain. Now can someone please order “The Grinder: New Orleans”?

"The Grinder" Rob Lowe & Timothy Olyphant

“The Grinder” Rob Lowe & Timothy Olyphant

Adam Taylor/Fox

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

Listen, I love Brad Pitt’s Rachel-hating Thanksgiving guest on “Friends,” Rob Lowe’s maniacal actor on “Californication,” Kate Winslet as Oscar-baiting Kate Winslet on “Extras,” Character Actress Margo Martindale in “BoJack Horseman” (and “The Americans”), LaVar Burton as LaVar Burton on “Community,” and virtually everyone who stopped by “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation.”

But I have to highlight the current king of TV cameos: Jon Hamm. Pick any one of the many guest appearances he’s made, and you’re going to hit on an all-time favorite. I mean, you could rank them…but that would be…crazy? So, I’ll just list them, in no particular order, just so you, uh, can find the ones you missed on your own: “30 Rock,” “SNL,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “Angie Tribeca,” “The Greatest Event in Television History” (“Simon & Simon” > “Two Close for Comfort”), “Parks and Recreation,” “The Last Man on Earth,” “Web Therapy,” “Archer,” “Bob’s Burgers.”

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “Legion” (5 votes)

Other contenders: ”The Americans” (three votes), “Feud”  (two votes), “American Crime,” “Big Little Lies” (one vote each)

*In the case of streaming, the show must have premiered in the past month.

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