Tag Archives: casting

Two New Rules for TV story-telling (aka things to learn from Being Human)

being human

Let’s begin here:

My Netflix research this fall tells me that the rules for making popular culture and TV are changing.

The cause?  That popular culture is getting better and this means some of the old rules are now ineffectual and in some cases actually counter-productive.

Being Human is a great case study.

This is a study in fantasy and the supernatural.  A ghost, a vampire and a werewolf find themselves living together and look to one another for guidance and relief.

It is a show is riddled with implausibilities.  Characters skip around in time and space.  They morph from one creature to another. The plot lines can get really very complicated.

And the viewer doesn’t care.  (At least this viewer doesn’t.)  The acting is so good that we believe in these characters and we are prepared to follow them anywhere.   Even when the plot tests our credulity, we believe in the show.

The key is good acting.  Without this, Being Human is just another exercise in dubiety.  With it, the show holds as a story and more important it actually serves as an opportunity to ask big questions that attach to “being human.”

There is a second show in SyFy called Lost Girl.  .  This is billed as a supernatural crime drama.  It too is stuffed with implausibility.  Lots of fabled creatures and magical spells.  For me, it’s pretty much unwatchable.

And the difference is largely acting.  The actors on Lost Girl are not bad.  They are just not good enough to deliver the emotion truth on which narratives depend, but more to the point they are not good enough to help Lost Girl survive the weight of its own implausibility.

This condition is actually complicated by the creative decision to have the characters supply the “ancient lore” that explains spells and various supernatural beastie.  I found myself shouting at the TV,

“Oh, who the f*ck cares!  The back story is a) not interesting, b) it does not animate the front story, c) in short, the back story is your problem, not our problem.  Get on with it.  Spare us the pointless exposition.”

(Yes, it’s true.  I shout in point form.  It’s a Powerpoint problem.  I’m getting help.  It’s called Keynote.)

New Rule # 1

The more implausibility contained in a narrative, the better your actors had better be.

If this means spending more time casting, spend the time casting.  If this means paying your actors more, pay them more.  Actors are everything.  Well, after the writers.  And the show runners.  Um, and the audience.  But you see what I mean.

And this brings us to the second new rule for story telling on TV.  The old rule of TV was that actors should be ABAP (as beautiful as possible).  Given the choice between someone who is heartstoppingly attractive and someone who looks, say, like one of the actors on Being Human (as above), you must, the old rule says, choose the actor who is ABAP.  (The Being Human actors are attractive.  They just aren’t model perfect.)

This rule created a trade off.  Very beautiful actors were chosen even when they weren’t very talented as actors.  Indeed, show runners were routinely trading talent away for beauty.  As a result, a show began to look like a fashion runway.  Even good writing could be made to feel like something out of the day-time soaps.

Bad acting is of course the death of good narrative.  Wooden performances can kill great writing.  But real beauty exacts a second price.  There are moments when you are supposed to be paying attention to a plot point and you find yourself thinking, “Good lord, what a perfectly modeled chin!”

In a perfect world, every actress would be Nicole Kidman, perfectly beautiful, utterly talented.  In the old days, when TV makers had to chose they would go for beauty even when it cost them talent.  But here’s the new rule.

New Rule # 2

Do not choose beauty over talent.  Beauty used to be the glue that held your audience to your show.  Now that work is performed by talent.  It’s not that beauty doesn’t matter.  Seek attractive actors.  But beauty will never matter more than talent.  Make sure the talent is there, and then, and only then, can you cast for beauty.  Think of this as a kind of “attractive enough” principal.

Stated baldly, this rule seems indubitable.  What show-runner or casting agent would ever think otherwise?  On the other hand, I dropped in on The CW recently and everyone seemed model perfect with bad consequences for the quality of the work on the screen.

A change is taking place in our culture.  And over the longer term, it will provoke a changing of the guard, a veritable migration in the entertainment industry .  Actors who are merely talented will have a more difficult time finding work.  And, counterintuitively, actors who are blindingly attractive will have a more difficult finding work.  What used to make them effective now makes them distracting.

As popular culture becomes culture, there will be many more changes.  Watch this space.


Suits, the USA Network show (Thursday at 10:00), deputed it’s second season this week. It’s promises to be as good as last year and then some.  

I think it’s fair to say that this show has better scripts and acting than Mad Men.  It certainly does more interesting things with the law than Mad Men does with advertising.  

The thing that strikes me most about this show is the casting.  None of the actors here come from big projects or grand careers. It took someone with a particular gift to see the greatness (ok, goodness) of which they were capable.  (Greatness will leave for season 3.) 

Hats off to Rachel Rose Oginsky and the following producers and executive producers:

David Bartis
Gavin Barclay
Nathan Perkins
Jon Cowan
Chevy Chen
Igor Srubshchik
Aaron Korsh
Doug Liman
Gene Klein

Post script.

This scene will show you how Mike got this job.  He is chased into an interview room by men looking for the pot in his briefcase.  And so a new life, and show, begins. CLICK HERE.

Build your own Culturematic. (I did.)

Imagine hitting “generate” and getting:

Mos Def and Tina Fey

This is your output from a Culturematic machine.  

The machine does something really simple. It selects two names from a list at random.

The point of the exercise?  Practically, this Culturematic machine could be used for making culture, specifically, casting movies and TV shows. Formally, it can be used for exploring our culture.  

I have run my Culturematic many times now, and some of the outputs are not interesting.  

Bill Clinton and Barbara Walters

This isn’t especially interesting because we can so easily imagine one interviewing the other. 

Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh

This is not interesting, because, well, you know.  They come from the same part of the world.

Madonna and Lady Gaga.


It’s when the Culturematic brings together far-flung worlds that our interest is piqued.  (At least mine is.  I realize that I am working off my own idiosyncratic reactions here.)

Mos Def and Tina Fey

This is interesting.  I can think about Mos Def.  And I can think about Tina Fey.  Thinking about them at the same time is difficult…and therefore interesting.  

It is precisely because they are far flung creatures that we would not normally think to bring them together.  

That’s what the Culturematic is for.  Because it’s a machine, it doesn’t know from culture. It’s happy to make combinations we wouldn’t think of.   And that’s what makes it valuable: for casting and for exploration.  (“Date Night” starring Tina Fey and Steve Carell was interesting. Replace Steve Carell with Mos Def and interesting becomes interestinger.)

Version 2

In this version, the Culturematic takes two names and combines them with a phrase.  Here are some of the outputs I have got from my Culturematic:

Lady Gaga and Glenn Beck struggle to establish a parent-child dynamic.

Pink and Richard Branson, working on new concepts of civil society.

Christopher Hitchens and Graydon Carter, looking for triumph in all the wrong places.

This is interesting for another reason.  It forces us to take our cultural knowledge (celebrities are particularly useful cultural knowledge: shared, vivid, and well distributed) and use it in new ways.  We struggle to think about how Lady Gaga and Glenn Beck could have any relationship, let alone a parent-child one.  

Ok, I have run out of time.  Tomorrow, I will give you the logic and the code for my Culturematic.  (Wait till you see how I wired it together.  It’s a real mess.)  I’m hoping you will want to build one too.  (Because I know that you can do a better job.)  


Thanks for the University of Chicago writing laboratory for their precedent.  Full details tomorrow.