Creative casting and the superstar model

By BOB MARTIN

Contributing columnist

My wife and I like crime programs, particularly those from Europe. We watch TV series from England, Scotland, Belgium, Norway, Finland and the Shetland Islands. It is interesting to note that many of these programs have common characteristics, despite their origins. One common characteristic is they explore conflicts between social groups.

The stage is set in small villages, which leads to interesting exchanges between rural folk and urban sophisticates. When the urban denizens visit the village, they carry attitudes about villagers; and villagers have their own stereotypes about urbanites.

Conflict is inevitable. Since the series is in a village, it is more sympathetic to the rubes who are mistreated by the urbanites.      

Conflict over social class is also a common theme, with priggish aristocrats looking down long noses at loutish commoners. These confrontations are the most “visceral” of the conflicts. There is a deep resentment of the aristocracy among commoners, not so much about their wealth, but about smug, condescending attitudes — this appears to be a universal reaction of commoners to such attitudes.   

Sadly, there appears to be no such thing as a happy marriage in small villages. Infidelity is the order of the day and obsession with sex abounds, while some couples live in quiet contempt for their partner. Unfortunately, the programs are not very charitable towards Christians; they are frequently portrayed as raving extremists or weak people.

A startling characteristic is the number of murders in each episode. It inspires one to caution about living in a small village. Our favorite program is aptly named “Mid-Somer Murders.” We bet on the number of murders in each episode; so far there has been as few as one and as many as five. There is a bit of whimsy in the series since the actors periodically comment on the improbability of so many murders in such a small community.

The most charming characteristic of these mysteries is the casting. There are very few “beautiful people” in the cast. The casts are 99 percent normal people. Some are attractive, some not so much, and some are real character actors. Since everybody is normal, the actors are relieved of being “cool,” so the dialogue must compensate for the absence of stunning good looks. This leads to interesting dialogue, which used to be an integral part of acting.

The “superstar” model that preoccupies Hollywood has unfortunate consequences for the quality of serious drama. No one really looks like that since those who successfully deal with reality are a little road worn. The superstar model allows studios to distract audiences and cover a multitude of sins, such as thin character development, weak dialogue and inconsistent plots.    

Technology is “disrupting” many industries, as well as producing new TV and movie content. This opens the door for competition from regional producers. Hollywood’s monopoly on content and the creation of “stars” may be coming to an end.

Producing content with only beautiful people is purposely insincere, while casts made up of normal people are honest. The plot must involve some level of fantasy when the cast consists of superstars. So, it is rational for a series set in a village to be cast with normal people. This model leads to more impact when a beautiful person is given a role. A lot more can be communicated through creative casting under this new model than under the superstar system.

Beyond Hollywood, the paper thin superstar model has infected other aspects of society, most egregiously in politics. Neither Abraham Lincoln, FDR nor Harry Truman could be elected president today. This is the primary reason why there are so few statesmen in politics. People who get through life on the basis of their looks rarely have well-developed characters — as the Marines say “adversity builds character.” Be very wary of candidates who seem to come from central casting.

Bob Martin is Emeritus Boles Professor of Economics at Centre College.