Can TV Make Hated Stars Lovable Again?

By  · Published on August 14th, 2013

Can TV Make Hated Stars Lovable Again?

Stars used to fade away. Now they get second and third careers on TV.

Katherine Heigl is the latest failed film actor to retreat (back) to the small screen. In the three years since she left Grey’s Anatomy, the show that made her famous and won her an Emmy, Heigl’s reverse-alchemied a once promising film career into a national punchline. Despite Heigl’s runner-up status to the title of America’s Most Hated Actress, second only to Gwyneth Paltrow (GOOP could never lose that crown), her new Homeland/Scandal-hybrid show – a procedural that “focuses on how the CIA handles hotspots around the globe, with Heigl playing an adviser/communications liaison for the U.S. president,” according to Deadline Hollywood – is drawing competitive bids from NBC and cable networks.

That multiple suits are interested in throwing millions of dollars at Public Enemy #2 to appear in front of the cameras begs the question: Can TV be its own celebrity rehab? After all, the check-signers are counting on the fact that audiences will come around on the tantrum-prone actress.

Fortunately for Heigl, the answer seems to be a resounding yes, thanks to the small screen’s smaller audiences and greater capacity to embrace hate. A TV show, especially one on the biggest loser network NBC, needs just a fraction of the audience of a modestly budgeted theatrical release to be a hit. Compare, for example, the 3 million viewers who tune in on the peacock network’s Hannibal and Crossing Lines to the 12 million or so for The Ugly Truth, with its budget of $38M, to break even on its production and marketing costs.* The tiny contingent of die-hard Izzie fans – and the silent majority of TV viewers who simply don’t care about Heigl’s off-screen antics – can more than easily make the show a hit.

More importantly, TV is simply more hospitable to hate. In fact, the entire canon of reality TV programming, from the Real Housewives franchise to American Idol and Survivor to the dozen-or-so shows chronicling the Kardashian clan, feeds off schadenfreude. There simply isn’t a cinematic equivalent for “hate-watching,” because few people want to make the effort to drive to the local megaplex and shell out for $11.50 for something they know to be a waste of time. (Even Hollywood royalty like Paltrow has been playing it safe for the last few years with a superhero franchise.) Sure, there are “so bad it’s good” movies, but “mock-watching” veers between teasing affection and knowing condescension – not all-out loathing. Heigl might also ironically gain some numbers in the ratings from the haters eager to watch her fail.

The serialized nature of TV also gives stars with less-than-stellar reputations the time and space to humanize and reestablish themselves. Whatever its merits as a sitcom, Two and a Half Men has successfully reinvigorated the flagging careers of Charlie Sheen and Ashton Kutcher. (It’s not Two and a Half Men’s fault Sheen went on a massive coke-and-ego bender in 2011. And another network, FX, put Sheen back on the air as soon as they stamped out a 100-episode deal.) TV audiences were also more than willing to forgive David Caruso, now with ten seasons of CSI: Miami under his belt, for abandoning the groundbreaking NYPD Blue to star in dreck like Jade.

But Sheen, Kutcher, and Caruso’s returns to TV follow a familiar pattern: their roles play with their troubled images. (Also see: T, Ice.) Notably, then, Heigl is forging new ground by refusing to play the game: her new thriller would be a 180-turn from the medical melodramas and romantic comedies that made her famous.

But now’s the opportunity for Heigl to shine. The ambitious actress has been so difficult partly because of her ingratitude: she called her breakthrough film Knocked Up “sexist” upon release and publicly denounced the Grey’s Anatomy writers by accusing them of not giving her character enough “material…to warrant an Emmy nomination.”

As an experienced (if not particularly skilled) producer, Heigl just might create for herself the “strong woman” roles she’s been clamoring for in the press. If she pulls it off, Heigl’s return to TV just might make Hollywood’s biggest comeback story in years.

Your move, Lindsay Lohan.

* Here’s the cocktail-napkin math: A ~$40m like The Ugly Truth would have a total budget of at least $60m once domestic marketing costs are accounted for. Since box office receipts are divided 50–50 between studios and movie theaters, that means The Ugly Truth needed $120m at the multiplex to recoup its budget. If tickets average out at $10 a pop, there needs to be 12 million ticket-buyers out there for the film to get out of the red. The Ugly Truth earned $89m domestically in theaters, though that figure doesn’t cover international box office figures or DVD and TV rerun sales.