For those of you still that unfamiliar with her pre-music days, a little background on Ariana's acting career: she started out as a Broadway actress, playing the supporting role of cheerleader Charlotte in the kiddie musical 13. A couple years later, she moved to TV when she landed what would be her signature role: Cat Valentine, classmate and friend of protagonist Tori Vega (Victoria Justice) on the Nickelodeon show Victorious. That show lasted three seasons (technically four, since the last was subsequently split in two) before being canceled, at which point the Cat character was given a joint spin-off with Jeanette McCurdy's Sam Puckett character from fellow Nick hit iCarly, creatively titled Sam & Cat.
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Going back to that first episode of Victorious now (from 2010, though it feels like a lot longer ago) can be a little bit jarring -- like going to watch Brittany Murphy's performance as the frumpy, hapless Tai in Clueless if you only knew her from her sexpot roles in 8 Mile and Sidewalks of New York. In the Victorious pilot, Cat even has Tai-like frizzy red hair, an idiosyncratic-to-be-generous fashion sense, and the tendency to break into hysterics at a moment's notice. (A frazzled "WHAT'S THAT SUPPOSED TO MEAN??" is also set up to be Cat's recurring catchphrase.) It's virtually unrecognizable as the composed, stately, brunette Grande we've come to know from her performances and music videos.
By the time the show actually got picked up for a full first season, Grande and the producers seemed to realize it would be a good idea to tone down some of Cat's histrionics, as well as de-frizzing her hair, though they kept it a straight red. Cat was still a little manic, but mostly just very impressionable and easily swayed -- often confused and more than a little dim-witted, but generally sweet and well-meaning. Ariana plays her in such a way that she rarely changes facial expressions or vocal tones throughout the entire show; whether Cat's ecstatic or furious, chilled-out or freaked out, she keeps the same innocent, moony-eyed look with the same soft, lilting monotone.
While Cat could occasionally get a little grating, on the whole she was one of the best, most compelling characters on the show. Victoria Justice was stuck playing the straight part of the irritatingly perfect Tori -- mostly irritating because she often seemed to be ignorant of her own perfection -- while Ariana got to have all the fun playing the supremely silly Cat, going off on long rants about not understanding the distinction between lemonade and first aid, or suggesting space pirates and kangaroo babies for the school prom theme, or mistakenly ordering 144 Pajelehoochos (the Victorious double-down on the Snuggie) online.
In fact, the best Victorious moments tended to focus on a Cat side-adventure with another, contrasting supporting character, like Tori's obnoxious and narcissistic older sister Trina, or Tori's unapologetically vicious frenemy Jade. One of the show's funniest bits comes from an episode where Jade suspects her boyfriend of cheating on her with Tori, and tries to enlist Cat's help tracking them down, ultimately deciding just to steal her phone and imitate her voice, much to Cat's consternation:
Ariana slays it throughout with her throwaway comments ("We stopped, am I in trouble?" "Bossy!," "That's so disrespectful"), her emotional sincerity and supreme lack of guile making a hilarious counterpoint to the successful manipulations of the conniving Jade (and to Jade's pitch-perfect, though literally phoned-in, impersonation of Cat). It's classic comedy stuff, like something out of an old Marx Brothers routine, and Ariana sells her end beautifully.
It was probably episodes like these that would give show creator Dan Schneider the inspiration to form Sam & Cat. The spin-off gave Cat a full-time Jade-like pairing in the form of iCarly's Sam, a self-centered, violence-prone schemer, who moved in as Cat's roommate and felt no remorse in taking advantage of her naivete and gullibility at every possible turn. Grande and Jennette McCurdy had good chemistry, and since Cat's best moments seemed to come when paired with opposite-minded characters, a whole show of such moments seemed like a winning recipe.
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However, while Sam & Cat got off to a pretty good start and mostly drew good ratings, the series quickly took on a decidedly sour tone. It was one thing to see Cat get occasionally beat up in B plots on Victorious, but to see her take it on the chin from the genuinely mean-spirited Sam in the main plot of nearly every episode got pretty rough.
Most insanely, the first season ended with Sam leaving Cat to rot in a jail in Arizona for two weeks, simply because she was enjoying having Cat's grandmother ("Nona") around to cook and clean for her and didn't want Cat to come back and displace her. Seriously, this is how the season actually ends. What's more, because the show wasn't renewed for a second season, that episode now goes down as the series finale, which even makes the old Arrested Development series-ender seem jovial and good-natured by comparison.
Perhaps it's unsurprising that the on-screen bitterness seeped into real life, as a schism formed between Grande and McCurdy that likely did the show in. Alleged causes abound: Grande was making more money and McCurdy wanted a commiserate salary, Grande's people disapproved of McCurdy's fast-lane lifestyle, McCurdy viewed Grande as a "trouble friend" -- you can read all about the facts and rumors in Emily Yoshida's excellent Know Your Beef breakdown for Grantland. But whatever it is, it caused the second season of a fairly popular show to be aborted, and put Grande's acting career on ice, at least temporarily.
So is Ariana Grande a really good actress, or just a likable performer who stumbled into a good part for her? Well, we don't have a ton else to go on yet, besides the Disney TV Movie Swindle, a mostly lame Ocean's 11-type heist flick for the Nick set. In it, Ariana plays Amanda, a supremely athletic cheerleader with a secret nerdy streak. Her character is supposed to be something of a polar opposite to Cat, the typical "hot chick" with an attitude of superiority, but while she has some enjoyably snappy moments at the beginning, as the movie goes on, more of Cat's monotone delivery and unchanging facial expression begins to seep out, until she basically sounds like a slightly more polished version of her Victorious creation.
It seems like maybe Ariana doesn't have a ton of range as an actress yet, though she unquestionably has a good deal of charisma, and a generally sympathetic quality that can make you furious when a meanie like Jade or Sam won't stop stepping on her. Hopefully if and when she does get back to acting, she can play an adult sort of character -- hopefully outside the Nick umbrella -- so we can see what she's actually like as an actress when she's playing more of a person than a type.