New Fall Shows' Familiar Faces: Blessing or Curse?

This fall TV season, Chandler Bing, Ally McBeal, Robert Barone and Sam Malone will be back in your living room, if you'll have them.

But it's not the popular characters from the wildly successful bygone shows "Friends," "Ally McBeal," "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "Cheers" who are making comebacks in other television series. It's the actors who played them.

The question remains whether Matthew Perry, Calista Flockhart, Brad Garrett and Ted Danson will be able to shake off the familiar personas that made them fixtures in homes around the world enough for viewers to embrace them as much in their new roles as they did in their old.

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"It is hard to make that transition from one character to another," said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television. "When you've been in a really big hit show, you've got a little bit of an uphill climb to escape that character. On the other hand, a good new show can solve all those problems."

Using those criteria, Perry may have the best shot of the bunch at winning fans over to his new project, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" — a dramedy set behind the scenes of a "Saturday Night Live"-type comedy sketch show that is the brainchild of acclaimed "West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin.

As he was in "Friends," Perry — who plays "Studio 60" co-producer Matt Albie in the hour-long series that premiered Monday night on NBC — is one of several strong actors in an ensemble cast, this time including Bradley Whitford, Amanda Peet and Steven Weber.

"The acting is top-notch," said New York Post television critic Adam Buckman. "Matthew Perry is very lucky to go from one A-level ensemble to another. It's a good show. If it fails, it will not be his fault." (If it fails, it could be the fault of network — which inexplicably took on two shows with the same premise; the other is the half-hour comedy "30 Rock" created by "SNL" veteran Tina Fey.)

But pilots of the other new series with old TV favorites have gotten mixed reviews, so it remains to be seen whether the actors will fall victim to the so-called "'Seinfeld' curse" — a catchphrase created when, one by one, each show the legendary sitcom's stars did after "Seinfeld" flopped, leading many to speculate that the careers of the cast were over.

The so-called curse seems to have lifted for at least one of the series' leads, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who just won a best actress Emmy for her work on her current sitcom "The New Adventures of Old Christine" despite the show's lukewarm reception by some critics and viewers.

"I'm not somebody who really believes in curses, but curse this, baby!" Louis-Dreyfus said in her acceptance speech. She was nominated, but never won, the supporting actress Emmy for playing Elaine on "Seinfeld."

Some don't even buy the theory that bad luck befalls TV actors after their first successful show has ended.

"I'm not convinced that there is a 'Seinfeld' curse," said Entertainment Weekly correspondent Whitney Pastorek. "I think it's because the shows those people have been on have been bad.

"It's actually a pretty smart thing to do to anchor a show with someone TV audiences are familiar with," she added. "TV audiences are pretty loyal. It's a quick way to identify yourself and make your show stand out."

And that's exactly what a handful of producers have done this fall season. In the ABC drama "Brothers & Sisters," Flockhart plays a politically conservative radio host — quite the departure from the zany, flustered, tripping-through-life lawyer Ally McBeal she was on the quirky FOX show of the same name.

Garrett is classic Garrett in FOX's "'Til Death," only this time he's a practiced husband, not a singleton-turned-newlywed like he was on "Raymond."

Danson is back to the likeable sort he was on "Cheers," rather than the snarky jerk he played on "Becker," in "Help Me Help You" as a shrink who needs therapy.

And "3rd Rock From the Sun" star John Lithgow is his typically overacting, pompously witty self in "Twenty Good Years," in which he costars with another slapsticky sitcom favorite, Jeffrey Tambor — who most recently did a memorable turn on "Arrested Development."

Pastorek and other industry insiders seem to agree that if these actors' latest projects flounder, it won't be because they're prisoners of the previous roles that made them famous. It will be because the programs just aren't up to snuff.

"None of these actors seem to bring to these new shows any such baggage," Buckman said. "That's probably because of the nature of these shows and the characters they play."

That's not to say that audiences who grew to know and love Perry, Flockhart, Garrett, Danson and Lithgow in their pivotal television roles won't find anything familiar about the way they portray this set of characters.

But because the series they've moved to are generally significantly different from the ones that ended — and, in most cases, a substantial period of time has passed — it's likely any similarities won't be too distracting to viewers.

"Actors bring a similar style to everything they do," Buckman said. In the case of Matthew Perry, for example, "his acting mannerisms will be familiar to everyone who watched 'Friends' and watched him play Chandler. But my reading is that he fits quite comfortably into his new surroundings."

Lithgow's style will also be recognizable to viewers who followed him on "3rd Rock," with one major difference — he isn't playing an alien, but a 60-something, self-obsessed surgeon named John Mason who decides to live up his golden years with his best friend Jeffrey Pyne (Tambor). Early buzz about "Twenty Good Years" has been inconclusive, however.

As for Flockhart and Danson, Buckman predicted that while they were well known as Ally McBeal and Sam Malone, no one is likely to associate them with their old TV selves because so much time has gone by.

It doesn't hurt that the characters they're taking on now bear little resemblance to the ones they played back then — especially in the case of Flockhart's conservative right-wing pundit Kitty Walker in "Brothers & Sisters."

"She's not the wide-eyed innocent she played. Now she's more grown up," Buckman said. "She isn't Ally McBeal; she's Calista Flockhart. And she's not the dominant one; it's an ensemble."

But whether "Help Me Help You" or "Brothers & Sisters" will find a following remains to be seen.

Of all the seasoned TV stars remaking themselves this fall, the one whose gig and character are the most like those he was involved with before is Garrett. He's also the one whose last show ended the most recently.

"It's still Brad Garrett in his gravelly voice throwing out one-liners," Buckman said. "For the most part, Brad Garrett plays Brad Garrett."

But FOX's "'Til Death" has not exactly been praised to the hilt since it premiered Sept. 7. As much as Garrett's schtick worked like a charm when he played Ray Barone's brother Robert on "Raymond," ultimately it may not be enough to keep his career follow-up afloat.

In fact, more often than not, landing a successful, long-running show on network television doesn't happen to the same actor more than once — twice at most — whether the second or third go-around is a spinoff built around the original character or an entirely new entity.

"Good shows don't come along that often," Thompson said. "For one actor to get two of them is even less likely."

In other words, the "Seinfeld" curse has actually been around a lot longer than the sitcom it's named for.

Bill Cosby was plagued by it; after a career pinnacle spanning eight years as Dr. Cliff Huxtable on "The Cosby Show," takes two and three —"The Cosby Mysteries" and "Cosby" — both tanked.

John Ritter hit the jackpot as Jack Tripper on "Three's Company," which ran for seven years, but reprising the character in the offshoot "Three's a Crowd" turned out to be too much of a gamble, and it was yanked off the air after only one season.

In the year before his untimely death in 2003, however, it seemed the popular-sitcom-star Ritter was back in "8 Simple Rules ... for Dating My Teenage Daughter," which was a ratings winner for ABC.

Mary Tyler Moore had two back-to-back success stories with "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" but then never had a hit series again in spite of being cast in one after another for years.

The "Gilligan's Island" actors were also unlucky in their quest for a second chance at success, and Henry Winkler was forever immortalized as The Fonz after "Happy Days," so much so that TV audiences just couldn't buy him as anyone else.

But it wasn't until the plight of the "Seinfeld" stars that the idea of a curse was bandied about. And what a curse it's been — if you believe in them, that is.

Michael Richards (aka Kramer) took on the disaster that was "The Michael Richards Show"; it died after a single season. Jason Alexander was cast in one television flop after another after entertaining viewers for eight years as the neurotic George Costanza. Louis-Dreyfus' follow-up to "Seinfeld," "Watching Ellie," was also a dismal, one-season failure.

Seinfeld himself was the only one who didn't sign on to do another TV show, comedy or otherwise — a wise move in retrospect.

Matt LeBlanc is among the most recent casualties of the trend. To say that the "Friends" offshoot "Joey" has been a disappointment is an understatement; it's currently on its second hiatus from the NBC schedule with no invitation to return in sight.

"The history of television is littered with actors who complained they could not get work in the seasons following their breakout roles," Buckman said. "This used to afflict the stars in the '70s even more."

Of course, there are a few exceptions. Bob Newhart had two good runs, first in "The Bob Newhart Show" and then in "Newhart." Larry Hagman had "I Dream of Jeannie" and "Dallas." And Kelsey Grammer is perhaps the most notable example of a TV actor who starred in a pair of long-running and critically acclaimed sitcoms — first "Cheers" and then "Frasier" — playing the same character, Dr. Frasier Crane.

Some stars attempt to rid themselves of their old TV ghosts by going a completely different route.

Megan Mullally, who made scores of "Will & Grace" fans laugh every week as the squeaky-voiced, self-medicating, Madison Avenue prima donna Karen Walker, has bid farewell to the sitcom, at least for now, and instead is hosting her own talk show this fall.

The best way to avoid the curse is the simplest: Choose a high-quality show with talented writers and a good ensemble cast of experienced actors. Often that means waiting for the right project. Patiently.

"I think it's good to take a sabbatical of a couple of seasons and see what happens," said Buckman. "It's OK to take a rest — unless, of course, you have to make a living."

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