As much as we at TVLine aim to keep you apprised of fun and exciting casting news, the fact is that sometimes (though rarely!) TV shows enter super-stealth mode in the name of springing a surprise on all of us.
In fact, with Disney+ launching its slate of live-action Marvel series this year, 2021 packed a bigger “surprise casting!” punch than ever, using the small screen to introduce at least two new players to the MCU (while also making X-Men fans do a very fun double take).
With such casting coups and similarly delightful cameos in good supply this year, TVLine’s 2021 in Review has rounded up nearly 20 on-screen appearances that caught the audience at large off guard and/or teased us all with a fun wink-wink.
From Gordon Sumner’s involvement in a Murders plot to the Supergirl series finale’s crowd-pleasing encore, let’s revisit some of the year’s very best cameos and most secret castings — and then chime in with the ones you enjoyed most!
The casting of Eminem as teenage gangster White Boy Rick Wershe felt like a perfect fit — minus the teen part. So BMF producers, including the Detroit rapper’s long-time friend 50 Cent, figured out a way to digitally make the 8 Mile star look younger. And the rest was crime drama history (if only for the two minutes he appeared).
DAVID DUCHOVNY, THE CHAIR
We giggled when a well-heeled university donor suggested the X-Files star as a guest lecturer on the Netflix college comedy — and then we really laughed when Duchovny actually showed up to play an obnoxious, pretentious version of himself. His thoughts on Beckett may be hopelessly out of date… but he still looks great in a Speedo.
ELISABETH SHUE, COBRA KAI
Ali Mills returned to the Valley, offering outside perspective that helped squash the lingering tension between Daniel and Johnny. Though it was teased the season prior, Shue hadn’t reprised her role since the original movie in 1984, and her top secret return added to the still-growing list of Karate Kid originals that continue to weave throughout.
EILEEN DAVIDSON, DAYS OF OUR LIVES
The soap-hopper had already reclaimed her role of Kristen from successor Stacy Haiduk for Peacock’s Beyond Salem limited series. But that in no way prepared the NBC soap’s audience for the WTF-ness of the Nov. 12 episode, in which Haiduk’s possessed Susan transformed into… Davidson’s Kristen!
JOHN NOBLE, DEBRIS
Fans of Fringe (which Debris creator Joel Wyman exec-produced) were handed the world’s biggest Easter egg when John Noble showed up, unannounced, in the gone-to-soon NBC drama’s freshman finale as a Big Bad named Otto. As icing on the already-meta cake, Otto even donned goggles with red and blue lenses a la the glasses Walter Bishop once wore (and Twin Peaks‘ Dr. Jacoby before him!).
JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS, THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER
We knew someone big would arrive in the Disney+ series’ fifth episode, after creator Malcolm Spellman teased the addition of a well-known actor to the MCU. But even though an exciting cameo had been confirmed, it didn’t ruin the surprise or delight of seeing the eight-time Emmy-winning actress step into frame as Valentina Allegra de Fontaine — a character that was meant to debut in the Black Widow film, but ultimately popped up first on the small screen due to pandemic-related scheduling changes.
TINA FEY, GIRLS5EVA
When Sara Bareilles’ Dawn grew frustrated trying to write a song for the titular girl group, the Peacock comedy’s executive producer stepped in as country music icon Dolly Parton to offer some advice. While she was just a hallucination of sleep-deprived Dawn’s, Fey’s impression and physical transformation were spot-on, and the sheer surprise of it all only added to the hilarity.
SCOTT SPEEDMAN, GREY'S ANATOMY
So much time had passed since Meredith and Nick first threw sparks in Season 14 that we’d given up on them ever crossing paths again. But then, there Mer was, out to dinner in Minnesota with David in Season 18’s premiere, and who should appear outta nowhere — no warning, no foreshadowing, just absolute shock and joy — but Nick.
RILEY VOELKEL, LEGACIES
Hope’s long-awaited transition into a full-blown tribrid (a vampire, werewolf and witch all rolled into one!) was bound to be an emotional milestone, even without a surprise visit from Hope’s aunt Freya. So imagine our delight when Voelkel’s character suddenly showed up to usher her niece into the next phase of her life. Actually, make that the next phase of her afterlife.
JAIMIE ALEXANDER, LOKI
Disney+’s Marvel series have occasionally run the risk of collapsing under their fans’ own speculation about cameos, with major characters (hi, Mephisto!) theorized to pop up at some point. What a joy in Episode 4, then, to unexpectedly see Alexander reprise her MCU role of Lady Sif, who forced Loki to keep reliving one of his most unpleasant memories as a punishment from the TVA.
JONATHAN MAJORS, LOKI
When Loki and Sylvie arrived at The Citadel at the End of Time, Miss Minutes greeted them by saying that their host was the man who “created all and controls all.” When the elevator doors opened up, it was neither Mephisto nor Reed Richards waiting inside but He Who Remains, a variant who said he has been known by “many names” including as a “conqueror.” Though the name Kang was never stated outright, the season-finale sequence clearly marked Jonathan Majors’ MCU debut, ahead of the film Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (in theaters July 2023), where he will play the villainous Kang the Conqueror.
JOSH DUHAMEL, LOVE, VICTOR
After multiple Love, Simon alumni showed up in Love, Victor‘s first season, we’d hoped to see at least one more familiar face in Season 2. And yet, the Episode 3 appearance of Duhamel — who returned for one scene as Simon Spier’s father, Jack, now running a discussion group for parents of newly out gay children — still took us completely by surprise (and a pleasant one, to be sure).
STING, ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING
The enviable Upper West Side apartment building that Charles, Oliver and Mabel call home also houses a certain ’80s rock icon, and Sting gamely matched comedic wits with legends Steve Martin and Martin Short as he became a suspect in Tim Kono’s murder. He was gruff at first, but eventually warmed up to the investigators. (Just don’t stand so close to him.)
JANE LYNCH, ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING
One need only see TV’s erstwhile Sue Sylvester in a pork pie hat and brown eyeglasses, standing beside Steve Martin’s Charles Haden-Savage, to know that her casting as onetime Brazzos stunt double Saz was a stroke of genius.
EMILY DESCHANEL, THE ROOKIE
What if two of TV’s biggest Will They/Won’t They procedurals crossed streams? That notion was first teased when a promo for ABC’s The Rookie casually revealed that Bones vet Emily Deschanel would be guest-starring as the ex-wife of Castle alum Nathan Fillion’s titular lawman. After Deschanel’s episodes actually aired in May, we couldn’t help but wonder: How do we now get Stana Katic on SEAL Team?
LEE BYUNG-HUN, SQUID GAME
Though he apparently was not always the one wearing the costume throughout the season, the fact remains that when the game master known as The Front Man removed his mask, those familiar with Lee’s work (including 2015’s Inside Men, for which he won many awards, and the G.I. Joe movies) were pleasantly surprised to see the South Korean superstar pop up on the Netflix hit.
CALISTA FLOCKHART, SUPERGIRL
We weren’t sure if Flockhart’s Cat Grant would show up for the series finale, since we had barely seen her following the media titan’s departure in Season 2. Much to our surprise, Cat came through for the finale and, in a full circle moment, introduced Kara to the world as Supergirl. A perfect send-off for both characters.
EVAN PETERS, WANDAVISION
When Wanda’s twin brother came a-knocking at the end of Episode 5, the jaw-dropper was not so much that the quite dead Pietro was standing on her doorstep, but that he arrived in the form of Evan Peters — who of course played Pietro/Quicksilver in the X-Men movies. (Yes, word of Peters’ casting had dribbled out days prior, but for the bulk of America that doesn’t live on Reddit, the “switcheroo” was a real treat that even had eventually Wanda scratching her head.)
DONAL LOGUE, WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
FX’s vampire comedy is no stranger to offering cameos that an actor can really sink their teeth into — the Vampiric Council in and of itself has been a who’s who of bloodsucker movies, while Mark Hamill’s Jim the Vampire famously dogged “Jackie Daytona” in Season 2. But what made Logue’s brief Season 3 visit stand out was the fact that he was playing himself, tired anecdotes about “the business,” looming SVU arc and all.