I have been watching a bunch of British-produced TV shows, lately. In fact, since cutting cable TV, my wife and I have actually watched more TV than before, because we are actively picking shows that seem interesting; there is less "flipping around" and stumbling onto things. We have definitely gravitated toward the British shows. Because of this, I have seen a contrast so sharp between British and American TV that American TV now seems ridiculous, for one major reason: casting.
Our Netflix/Hulu/Amazon Instant wanderings started with American made LOST, which we liked quite a bit and then we moved onto Deadwood, which was brilliant, if filthy. Then, we embarked on a series of British mystery-oriented shows, from Ripper Street to the brilliant Foyle's War to the light, quirky and entertaining Midsomer Murders, to our current binge-watched show: Whitechapel.
They are all very good shows (I really like Whitechapel) but that's not the point of this. What I have noticed is an apparent difference in casting philosophies. I have long been aware that American casting is superficial, especially on TV. Everyone is exceedingly handsome or beautiful. Every adult seems to be a former prom king or queen. Doctors, garbage collectors, teachers, presidents, CEOs, security guards, students, letter carriers -- they are all models from the Sears catalogue. Unreality just hangs in the air. In advertisements, the shows look ridiculous to me, especially when those ads come on during the British shows.
It is indescribably refreshing to see shows in which the casting was clearly done for personality, but also with regard to the character and not just the aesthetics of the actor's "look."
American TV was once like this, I think. But I guess the Internet supported image-distribution, coupled with the availability of cosmetic surgery have made the crop of good-looking actors inexhaustible. The Brits have access to the same pool of humanity and to just as many images -- it just seems they are maintaining some level of integrity.
Here is the main cast of Whitechapel. Sure, we have the dashing Rupert Penry-Jones as our leading man, but his sidekicks look like real people. And, in fact, Penry-Jones's out-of-placeness is accentuated in the stories by his handsomeness. It works for the story:
Contrast this with the cast of Madmen. Try to catch seven guys and girls in one (real) room who are so handsome/lovely. I dare you:
Or CSI -- to me these people look factory-generated; like they were genetically engineered to be TV stars:
And it just isn't the lead characters; the extras on the British shows are all more real, as well. Notice that I said, "real" -- not less and not even less-attractive. They just look like actual people, not actors playing real people on TV. The only time American shows seem to cave-in and hire non-perfect actors is if they need a villain (ugly outside, ugly inside, right?) or a street person (poor = homely, right?).
And the women. I am sure the girls in England deal with a lot of the same unrealistic image-pressures that our young American girls deal with, but it is nice to see, for example, these two women, on Whitechapel -- both of whom do not fit the "Barbi Doll" mold, but both of whom I (and I am sure, many) find beautiful because of a combination of their character and their individual (and unique) appearances.
Here is Claire Rushbrook as Dr. Llewellyn. She is not cookie-cutter beautiful; she is real and more beautiful for her individuality and for the character she has created in Dr. Llewellyn, who is intelligent, passionate about her work and infectiously vibrant. (Please excuse the burnt corpse on the table):
Or, also from Whitechapel, Hannah Walters as Megan Riley. Not 115 pounds of six-foot runway model -- a real person whom you believe on screen. Here is a woman given a chance at a role she might not have gotten on American TV; or if she had gotten the chance, she might have had to play a skinny, leading girl's chubby girlfriend. On Whitechapel, she stands on her own as a strong, sweet and adept woman. Is she beautiful? I absolutely think so; in fact, I find her pretty sexy. But the best part is that is doesn't matter; her role is not about her appearance; it's about her character -- a character that could have been thin or overweight; glamorous or not. And unlike what one sees on many American-made shows, her appearence is never even referred to; the writers never feel the need to justify her presence in the cast by having her character constantly trying to lose weight, etc.:
British leading men and women are allowed to be old and they are allowed to be imperfect. British actors seem to be chosen for many reasons outside of their appearance and a for marginal ability to act. (I find the British actors -- and I am certainly not the first one to say this -- far superior, in general.)
Even the women on the British shows who need to be pretty because of their character seem to me more naturally pretty; pretty in more of a quirky way; not with a perefectly symetrical face and perfect teeth and silken hair, but, they are the girl you once fell deeply in love with in your math class; not the one you had on a poster in your room. More real, yet again.
I'm sure all directors and casting directors want a "look" for their characters, but that look should be chosen in service of the character. I never realized the contrast until I started watching these British made shows. Good art reflects reality. In reality, people are composed of different measurements, weights, sizes and facial types. Remove that and it might as well be a poor puppet show we're watching.