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Critics Pick Their Favorite Musical Guest Stars on Scripted TV

Whether they sang a few bars or made a bizarre acting cameo (or both), these musicians made memorable stops on TV.

Bruce Springsteen, "Lilyhammer"

Bruce Springsteen, “Lilyhammer”


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 is your favorite musical guest star on a scripted show? Past and present shows apply.

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

Aside from the curious acting career of one Sturgill Simpson, I’m not all that interested in musicians testing out their acting skills. The elements of performance that tie the two pursuits together can make a singer an enticing screen presence, but it’s usually their appearance on the show that spikes my interest before any of their music — if they’re a good actor, great, but if they’re just there for a ratings hit or to hook music fans, I’m good. That being said, I must say I made sure to watch Bruce Springsteen’s guest stint in the final episode “Lilyhammer.” Appearing as an eccentric mortician, the Boss didn’t share a scene with his E Street Band guitarist and series star Stevie Van Zandt, but one has to imagine that’s the only reason he was there. Funny for anyone who recognized him and forgettable for anyone who’s been living under a rock for the past 40 years, I imagine this is how most people feel when other musicians pop up unexpectedly in a scripted TV role: kinda fun, kinda silly, and not the main reason you want to see them.

Marisa Roffman (@marisaroffman), Give Me My Remote

For the purposes of this question, I’m going to discount musical acts who just performed. (Sorry to many of my “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “The O.C.” faves.) For sheer ridiculously fun meta purposes, Matchbox 20’s Rob Thomas appearing on TV writer Rob Thomas’ “iZombie” delighted me endlessly. Yes, the show got to make Rob Thomas jokes, but it also got to be punny about Thomas’ (who played himself) song titles in its signature post-commercial comic book-esque scene intros. (But a special shout out to Lisa Loeb on “Gossip Girl,” because I laugh every time I remember that guest arc happened.)

Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR

As a fan of the funk who also has an inexplicable crush on the adorkably cute Zooey Deschanel, I gotta go with Prince’s head-scratching cameo on “New Girl” back in 2014. As the legend goes, the Purple One was actually a fan who called up Deschanel and asked to be on the show. They wrote a few amusing scenes where Jake Johnson’s Nick Miller freaks out and faints after meeting him, and Prince insists Deschanel’s Jessica Day eat pancakes while they talk about her romantic issues. But the coolest moment is when Prince steps onstage at his party and invites Deschanel up too, performing the briefest of duets with her. I understand why he didn’t do much acting outside of the movies he controlled — his carefully cultivated mystique just couldn’t translate to scripted settings very well. But this odd cameo seemed just random enough to be delightful; made even more delicious by the knowledge that he apparently got a cameo by the Kardashians axed from the episode.

Jacob Oller (@JacobOller), Paste Magazine

How do you choose one musical guest from the royal feast of musical silliness that was “Galavant”? Well, by picking Weird Al Yankovic, of course. His turn as a monk during the show’s first season in the episode “Completely Mad…Alena,” during which he sings the barbershop-esque “Hey, Hey, We’re the Monks,” is exactly the kind of oddball, PG, “Robin Hood: Men in Tights”-style joke that goes exactly dorky enough. It doesn’t hurt that Yankovic’s inoffensive, surprisingly versatile musical talents vibe particularly well with Alan Menken and Glenn Slater’s knack for earworms. It may not be the best thing that Weird Al has ever done, but as a lifelong fan, seeing those monastery doors swing open to reveal that familiar face meant that the Order of Our Father of Perpetual Refrain was locked into my heart as the best thing to ever come from Dan Fogelman.

Weird Al Yankovic, "Galavant"

Weird Al Yankovic, “Galavant”


Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

Because we’re in the middle of press tour, I have to go with the first two answers that came to my mind, whether they’re true or not and that would be Sonny and Cher on “Scooby-Doo” and Rooney on “The OC.” Again, I’m fairly confident these would not be my answers if I aimed for more consideration, but… I’m standing by them!

Emily VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox

The answer to this probably should be any one of the wonderful live performances on “Twin Peaks: The Return,” which so beautifully broke up the action of that show into episodes. Each hour would reach a point where it seemed as if it had exhausted all it had to say, and then a wonderful musical performance would follow, putting a punctuation mark on the episode. (My favorite: The Chromatics.) It was almost therapeutic, the way the show used the music to lift you out of its otherworldly tension.

But only one band have I seen in concert because I saw them on TV first, and that’s Rooney from “The O.C.”

What. Shut up. I’m shoo-shoo-shakin.

Diane Gordon (@thesurfreport), Freelance

I can’t pick just one! Recently, seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” was a kick because he was a known fan of the show. Alas, he did not sing, dance or rap on the show. Sutton Foster’s musical ability was recently showcased on “Younger,” which was very cute and funny. Off the top of my head, I’ll go with Robert Morse singing and dancing Bert Cooper’s way to the great beyond as he performed “The Best Things in Life Are Free” for Don Draper on “Mad Men” and the “Scrubs” musical episode.

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

The category of “musical guest star” on a scripted show needs the mention of the trippy guest starring turns for Bob Dylan and T. Bone Burnett who were on “Dharma & Greg” of all shows and Frank Zappa on “Miami Vice.” Zappa was cast as an over-the-top heavy named Mario Fuente who was grilling Crockett and Tubbs on his yacht about some guy named Marotto “who stole his money” and it’s the funniest interpretation of a “weasel dust” gangster one could ever imagine.

At the time that show aired and I watched it, we had no Google so I thought weasel dust was some sort of new exotic strain of something snort-able, but turned out it was just blow. The only other person who confused me with drug terms was hall-of-famer baseball star Carl Yastrzemski (Boston Red Sox) who told me and my 7th grade class in a live appearance PSA thing to not do the “White Horse” which none of us kids knew what the hell he was talking about. So yes, I must say that Zappa wins this answer of the week. Wish he was still around.

Tyler Hinton, "One Tree Hill"

Tyler Hinton, “One Tree Hill”

Warner Bros. Television

Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling), TVGuide.com

There is only one right answer here, and it’s Tyler Hilton as Chris Keller on “One Tree Hill.” If you’ve seen “One Tree Hill,” you know I am right. If you haven’t seen “One Tree Hill,” you’ll just have to take my word for it. It’s true that Chris Keller was an ass most of the time and he referred to himself in the third person (“Chris Keller is too pretty to go to prison!”) much to the annoyance of everyone around him, but I loved him for it. Sometimes he actually did play music, but that was honestly not why anyone loved Chris Keller.

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

A: “Baskets” (two votes)

Other contenders: “The Boys,” “Euphoria,” “Love Island,” “Men. Abuse. Trauma.” “Orange Is the New Black,” “Shangri-La,” “South Side”

*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.

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