The networks are now in the thick of pilot season — previewing dozens of new shows vying for the few primetime slots available. It’s the dream of each TV actor that his or her show will be picked up and live a long and happy life on the air, ensuring its stars years of fame (or infamy) and a steady source of income (or golden handcuffs).
But there’s a dark side to scoring a successful TV series that no one seems willing to face: in the ensemble cast of nearly every long-running show, there’s one actor whose career is destined to die with the show. That actor is The Ziering.
Why this unlucky person should be known as “The Ziering“will be obvious to anyone who ever watched “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Ian Ziering was, through its entire 10-season run, one of the show's stars breathing fratty, mulleted life into the character of Steve Sanders.
During the show's run, Ziering made a handful of TV movies, but since then has had to content himself with voice work in projects such as animated TV adaptations of “The Mighty Ducks,” “Godzilla,” and “Spider-Man.”
In short: no one in North America has laid eyes on Ziering since “90210” took its final bow; the show’s cancellation ended his career as a live-action actor. (In fact, Ian isn’t even the most famous Ziering these days; his ex-wife, Nikki Schieler Ziering, appeared last year in four episodes of “I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!”)
The nature of TV is such that stars have many chances to endear themselves to audiences. A likable movie character flickers onscreen for 90 minutes and then is gone, whereas a likable TV character is in our homes every week, repeating time-tested catchphrases and getting up to predictable shenanigans. The longer a show is on the air, the more familiar its characters become to us.
TV actors who intend to continue having careers once their shows go off the air must plan very carefully to make it happen. They must spend every hiatus working on other projects — ideally, in roles very different from those with which they are identified in their day jobs. (For instance: Jennifer Aniston in “The Good Girl” — quite different from her “Friends” character, Rachel Green.)
Success means that audiences can distinguish George Clooney from his “ER” character Doug Ross; failure means that, as far as the world is concerned, Scott Baio is still Chachi — yes, even after five seasons of “Charles In Charge” — and that the James Van Der Beek Western “Texas Rangers” is derisively referred to as “Dawson on Horseback.”
Zierings before ZieringAs Baio illustrates, The Ziering predates Ziering himself. Joyce De Witt played Janet on seminal seventies sitcom “Three's Company,” but she offered neither the zany physical comedy of John Ritter nor the ur-blondeness of Suzanne Somers — and she's barely worked since, except to complain about not working on various E! biography shows.
In the next decade, Philip Michael Thomas was the suave Tubbs to Don Johnson's Crockett on “Miami Vice”; like Johnson, he put out a vanity album and graced various “Miami Vice” calendars sans shirt. Unlike Johnson, Thomas then vanished, visible only to viewers of phone-psychic ads, and now does video-game voice-overs.
And we could have predicted that, because Thomas had all the earmarks of a Ziering. An actor becomes a Ziering by displaying one or more of the following traits: he or she plays the title or lead role; is a confirmed sidekick; is on a long-running show for the entire run of that show; is fundamentally untalented or unattractive; has a substance-abuse issue, is “difficult,” or generally attracts more attention to him- or herself off-screen than on the show. (See chart at end of story.)
So it went with Thomas. Known almost exclusively for his work on “Miami Vice,” he's a sidekick with average thespian ability at best. It's a recipe for Ziering.
Tina Yothers is another Ziering who (un-)blossomed before our eyes on “Family Ties.” Yothers' Jennifer, the baby of TV's Keaton family, grew into a sullen, lumpy adolescent whose line-readings recalled an EKG flatline. She's now better known for playing in a band than for acting misfires like “Spunk: The Tonya Harding” (Yothers played Tonya) and — wait for it — “Laker Girls.”
No actor wants to wind up like Michael Richards, doomed by “Seinfeld”'s popularity and his own sidekick-y tics to a lifetime of Kramerriffic Zieringhood.
But a couple of aged ensemble shows are set to end this May, and for an unlucky few on those shows, Ziering status is inevitable. Can we tell who's going to go down with the ship?
Most Likely to Ziering“Frasier” is probably Zieringing Frasier himself. Between the eponymous show and “Cheers,” Kelsey Grammer has played the role of Frasier Crane for 20 years, and with the exception of voice work on “Toy Story 2,” his off-season projects have bombed. He's done time in rehab, he's on wife number three, and the man is many things, but “hot” ain't one of them.
Courteney Cox is pretty hot, but in the “Friends” class, she's the Most Likely To Ziering. The other Friends have put together spin-offs and development deals, or made headway in their movie careers; Cox has a producer credit on a so-so decorating show and a baby on the way. The other Friends have Emmy noms; Cox does not. Unless the “Ace Ventura” franchise is resurrected, she's on her way from Friend to footnote.
Kim Cattrall, late of HBO's “Sex & The City,” looks like another soon-to-be Ziering. “SATC” is one of the few decent projects she's picked (see: “Bonfire of the Vanities,” “Mannequin”). Never mind the unpublished sex book she wrote with her now-estranged husband.
And maybe everybody loves Raymond, but after the show goes off the air, we have to wonder who's going to love Patricia Heaton. Heaton plays Raymond's shrewish wife Debra with exactly one note, and spends her time off authoring obnoxious books about motherhood, supporting anti-choice organizations, and stomping out of awards shows hosted by the Osbournes.
Any of these actors could prove us wrong. Philip Michael Thomas could have a Travolta-style “Pulp Fiction” comeback in his future; Courteney Cox could score another Springsteen video. David Caruso almost Zieringed himself by bailing on “NYPD Blue” to make a handful of mediocre films, then got his groove back with “CSI: Miami.”
But we'd advise them to invest those final paychecks wisely.
Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting are co-creators and co-editors of Television Without Pity