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Image: Justin Bieber on "CSI"
Sonja Flemming  /  CBS
Teen singing sensation Justin Bieber makes his acting debut as a guest star on "CSI's" season premiere. He plays a troubled teen faced with a terrible decision.
TODAY contributor
updated 9/20/2010 6:58:56 PM ET 2010-09-20T22:58:56

When teen sensation Justin Bieber appears on the 11th season premiere of CBS’ “CSI” on Sept. 23, he’ll be making his acting debut — and following in a long-standing television tradition as the very special guest star.

“I got this call saying that Justin loves ‘CSI,’ so is there any chance he could be on the show?” recalled series executive producer Carol Mendelsohn. “He loved the show, he was interested in acting — it just fell into our laps.”

Very special guest stars are a part of the fabric of prime-time television, and spice up the normal routine of a weekly series: Classic 1950s sitcom “I Love Lucy” featured screen legend William Holden in an episode, and Oprah Winfrey helped Ellen DeGeneres come out on “Ellen.”

It’s a calculated move for actors (who tend to be very well paid for their appearances) and producers, who can goose their ratings. Britney Spears’ 2008 appearance on “How I Met Your Mother” boosted the show’s ratings to a then all-time high, and is credited with keeping the series on the air until it built a core audience.

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'You don't do it for the gimmick'
This season will be no different when it comes to featuring very special guests, except that more producers seem to be willing to apply that secret spice. Beyond Bieber, “CSI” will feature Elliot Gould and Ann-Margret; Jennifer Aniston goes to “Cougar Town,” Joe Jonas visits “90210” and Gwyneth Paltrow is in talks to make multiple appearances on “Glee.” The special guest star is also making inroads at brand-new productions: Judd Hirsch will reunite with former “Numb3rs” co-star Rob Morrow on an episode of the new series “The Whole Truth.”

How all of this plays out, however, depends on the ways in which these shows use their guests.

“It has to be about servicing the scene and the story first,” said “30 Rock” executive producer Robert Carlock, whose show has featured Jon Hamm, Alan Alda, Salma Hayek and Steve Martin. “Sometimes people with a high caliber of fame can overwhelm a scene. You don’t do it for the gimmick; you do it because they’re the right people.”

Casting the right person means you can cut through all the clutter of a busy premiere month.

“There’s so much on television to draw the audience away,” said Mendelsohn. “I knew we had to event-ize our episodes this year, to cut through the white noise and get the eyeballs.”

'Stunt casting'
As with any recipe, though, a show has to be careful not to use too much spice too often. That can turn a celebrity guest into a “stunt casting” opportunity, a phrase that harkens back to the days of “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island,” schlocky shows that existed almost completely on their bouquet of guest stars each week. Modern shows that overdo special guest appearances do so at the risk of eating up time normally dedicated to story exposition and regular lead character development, and can change the nature of a series.

“Mad About You” is a good cautionary tale against the perils of too many guests, said Tim Brooks, co-author of “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present.”

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“That was a very successful show that started to tail off, and they had a parade of stars every week. It was like they were trying to dress it up when the fundamental show wasn’t there. Too many guests can degrade the show and make it seem like it’s losing its bearing,” he said.

Fans are already wondering if that hasn’t happened with “Glee,” whose second season premieres Sept. 21. In the middle of its first season, the musical series jumped feet-first into special-guest casting, with appearances from Olivia Newton-John, Josh Groban, Eve, Kristin Chenoweth and Neil Patrick Harris (who won an Emmy for that spot).

This upcoming season promises even more names for “Glee” — Charice and Meat Loaf are confirmed; rumored names include Zac Efron, Javier Bardem and Tim Curry — as well as more musical tribute episodes. (Spears will get her own, and will also guest-star.)

That’s daring — and possibly suicidal territory for the show — whose fans want to see the characters they know and love interact,  not just perform karaoke numbers honoring the big star of the week.

Additionally, focusing on current music choices risks hurting the show in reruns, suggested Brooks.

Related story: 'Glee' is back with angst — and more songs

“It’s appropriate for them to bring in people who are of the culture of the moment and play off of them. But many shows that try to be contemporary don’t work in the long run,” he said. “When it comes to syndication and reruns, many stations don’t want to pay extra for shows that are too contemporary. You don’t see ‘In Living Color’ playing much right now. That’s the price you pay.”

Successful formula
Whatever the reasons for using multiple special guests, it’s hard to escape the fact that ultimately, it’s done as a ratings grab that promotes the show and the actor, but not necessarily the story being told.

“I’ve been on shows where there’s real pressure to do stunt casting, and they’re begging for ratings,” said Bob Daily, executive producer for “Desperate Housewives.” “That said, stunt casting is not always a bad thing.”

One example of a series that knows how to blend in frequent guest stars is NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” which has made a weekly habit of bringing in the faded (or fading) star of the moment. Jennifer Love Hewitt is appearing on the Sept. 29 episode, and previous guests have included Mischa Barton, Sharon Stone and Robin Williams. With its more rigid story-line structure and high-profile leads Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni, “SVU” seems to be avoiding “Mad’s” (and potentially “Glee’s”) fate thus far.

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“Anyone who calls it ‘stunt casting’ is jealous that we can get these great performers,” insisted executive producer Neal Baer. “There’s a reason why these actors are stars, and we want the best. If that’s a stunt, then we’re happy to do that.”

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Baer also noted, “Frank Langella did our show, and he said there are two reasons to take a part on TV: You need the money — he didn’t need the money — or to play a part you’ve never played. We made him the super of an apartment building who was beaten up by his two sons. That certainly was a part he never played before.”

And in the case of “SVU,” the proof is in the pudding when it comes to casting big names: The series has 16 outstanding guest actor or actress Emmy nominations, with five wins.

So no matter how Bieber does on Thursday, don’t expect very special guest stars to go away. So long as a series can dangle an interesting story line — plus a juicy paycheck — in front of an actor, there will always be a famous face willing to bite.

Randee Dawn is a freelance writer based in New York, and was born with a remote control in her hand. She is the co-author of “The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion,” which was published in 2009.

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