Wednesday, September 23, 2015

British vs. American TV Casting

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.


  1. That's an interesting perspective. I grew up believing that US programmes were largely high budget nonsense, while the British programmes had the best writing and acting.

    But these days my wife and I hardly ever watch British programmes because the most interesting writing seems to be in the US. As someone said recently, there is no British 'Breaking Bad' (a comment that prompted wags to point out that this was because we had free healthcare) and I feel that UK dramas have become stale and formulaic. I can't think of any British drama that in recent years that has impressed me as much as 'The Sopranos' or 'Breaking Bad'.

    Perhaps the novelty of another setting adds to the attraction, which is why there's also a craze for European crime dramas at the moment, but I also like the way that US dramas are long enough to develop characters and have good story arcs. British dramas rarely go beyond six episodes these days.

    I must give 'Whitechapel' a go - particularly as I met its writers - a married couple - when they were still making a name for themselves. The star, Rupert Penry-Jones, was also in 'Silk' recently - I don't know if you've seen it, but I enjoyed that. I also really liked 'The Fall'.

    My wife and I are looking forward to the new seasons of various dramas, including 'The Affair' and 'The Good Wife'. There will be no home-grown programmes on our schedule, which is a shame.

  2. I noticed that I've manage to rant about one of my hobby horses without addressing the question. Yes, there are too many people in US programmes with perfect bone structures and if you turn on the news, the older presenters look as if they've been embalmed - women with facelifts and botox; men with absurd, jet black hair. It's hard to take a programme seriously when all of the characters look like catalogue models.

    I've just started watching 'Fear the Walking Dead' with my older son and now I think about it, nearly all of the cast are young-looking and attractive. There are no fat people and I haven't seen a single ugly person yet. But perhaps that's just LA.

    1. No -- it was great to get your perspective. It's funny that I used to watch some of the older British shows, occasionally, as a kid/teenager and I couldn't get past the low-budget looks of some of them. Dr. Who, in the Baker years, for instance. Just couldn't do it. Now, although I enjoy, say, some of the newer Star Trek series, it is interesting to note that they are slick, with good effects, etc and that they sometimes have an excpetional story, but nothing like the days in which Roddenberry was hiring the likes of Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison and Alan Dean Foster to write shows. Of course, the budget for that original series was low, like some of the 70s/80s BBC shows, but the writing was often outstanding. (We won't talk about the acting.)

      Today, I find the "style" of a lot of the British shows to be very artistic and usually non-intrusive. But I do admit, I have been pretty tied to the mystery stuff, so I can't really speak too much to more character-driven TV.

      I have heard many smart people rave about Breaking Bad and I probably should give it a look, but I tend to be put-off by the serial-type shows; maybe a reason why I have been drawn to the Brit. mysteries. I like when a show has charactrer thread (Whitechapel does this well) but works in self-contained episodes. It's funny how the concept of TV is changing. I tried to convince my younger son to sit down and watch an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise with me and he said, "But-- I haven't watched it from the beginning..." Of course, the episodes are self-contained, but his concept is that shows have ongoing story arcs.

      I am also not a fan of the American obsession with shows that are based on harrowing premises of everyday people put into horrible situations (like that of Breaking Bad) . It seems like every show is about a good person placed into a bad life situation. It all seems to easy to me. I realize conflict is needed, but it seems like the base conflict on a lot of American TV is about wonderful people forced to abandon their morals for the sake of love and family. I realize that is probably an oversimplification of Breaking Bad; it seems a lot of shows have adopted that model and probably not done it quite as well as BB.

      Speaking of low-budget, my wife and I recently tried to watch Neverwhere. I liked the book, but we couldn;t ge through more than two half-hour episodes. It seems British TV has come very far even since then (mid nineties?). That was a very silly show. Maybe it was just that it was in poor hands. Brian Eno's ridiculous score didn't help. I respect him a lot, but that was pretty lame.

  3. I think the beauty of Breaking Bad is that it is ultimately a story with a very strong moral compass, but isn't gratuitously grim or melodramatic to make its point. The humour far outweighs the darker moments.

    I know what you mean about certain series - I still haven't watched The Wire because it looks as if it's relentlessly harrowing, but I might be completely wrong about that.

    Re: Star Trek, or 'TOS' as they now call it, I watched a few recently and was shocked by how old-fashioned it seemed, particularly the absurd soft focus used whenever a woman was in the shot. The two pilot episodes were good, but I think the networks wanted more sex appeal and insisted on elements that now make the programme seem really dated.

    1. I will definitely have to give Breaking Bad a shot...

      When I was teaching a fantasy and sci-fi class, I noticed a big similarity between the pilot (with the infinitely better Jeffrey Hunter as the captain) and TNG. In researching it, I learned that Roddenberry, in order to get the series on the air, had to make many concessions to the producers. They would not accept the idea of a female 2nd in command, so he backed down. They wanted him, because of their cigarette company sponsors, to have the crew smoke on the ship (he refused, categorically, for both speculative and moral reasons) and they wanted more color and more miniskirts. I like to think the goofiness he allowed was necessary to introduce wider audiences to sci-fi. In short, you are right: the network was to blame for the cheesiness.