Wednesday, January 31, 2024

American and British shows

 Barbara here, slightly late for my Wednesday morning post. Today I am simply copying a recent post I saw on Facebook, which addresses an issue that my friends, family, and I have been mulling over for several years. I'm copying it not because I am lazy, but because Michael Douglas articulates the issue more clearly (and provocatively) in his comments than I could. His conclusions are obviously generalizations, to which there are many exceptions, but his comments are meant to provoke thought.  My circle of friends and family tend to prefer British and European shows and novels more than American and we wondered why. So here goes.

Why does Hollywood keep casting British actors to play American superheroes?
This is an issue that extends beyond superhero films, to films in general. America has a young actor crisis. The topic has received quite a bit of coverage over the last couple of years, especially after the totally American story of Selma came out and people realized four of the primary characters were played by British actors.
The Atlantic did a feature on it, in which Michael Douglas commented on the issue, saying:
"Clearly, it breaks down on two fronts. In Britain they take their training seriously while in the States we’re going through a sort of social media image conscious thing rather than formal training. Many actors are getting caught up in this image thing, which is going on to affect their range."
Young actors from Britain, Ireland, Australia and other locations have grown up with their television dominated by American shows. They have heard American voices coming out of that box, every day, and they've mastered mimicking those accents. That means the best of those actors can cross the ocean and compete on a level playing field against the best young American actors. Add in the emphasis on training, overseas, and those young foreigners acquire an edge over many of their American counterparts.
Many young actors build their foundation in television before breaking into film. All one has to do is watch some American television and some British television and some structural differences will be noticed - differences that help young British actors and hinder young American actors.
The following is, of course, a generalization. Exceptions are easy to name. You might be tempted to reply with "What about Walking Dead and The Wire?" Well, they both starred British actors playing Americans. One doesn't need to be an absolute to have impacts.
American television has a heritage and tradition of glamor. American television characters are supposed to be better looking, better dressed, more articulate, and more superlative than the people watching television. There is a perspective that for a story to be interesting, it has to be about the best. The protagonist of a cop show should be a super cop. Police detective Kate Beckett, on Castle, has to be supermodel beautiful and thin, and yet still able to tackle a 240 lb bad guy. She has to be able to chase down a teenager in Nike's while she is wearing five inch heeled Christian Louboutin shoes. She does all this while wearing a $2200 jacket (that she'll have replaced next week with another $2000 jacket), and $600 jeans. She'll do all of this without sweating or getting a hair out of place. The protagonist of a law show has to be a GQ underwear model with an eidetic memory for the law and the charm to win over every jury. Soap operas are about the rich. Sitcoms like Friends are about beautiful people that rarely go to work. They sit in their palatial apartments wearing designer clothes and seemingly spouting spontaneous witticisms that took nine writers a week to refine.
American television has a foundation of depicting youth, vitality, exceptionalism, and wealth, and doing so in a weird warped world where everyone lives in either L.A. or New York, but has a nondescript middle of the country accent.
This is tough on actors. Rather than developing their skills at disappearing into multivariate characters, their job is to always look cool. Their job is to become a brand.
Conversely, British television has a foundation of reveling in the linguistic, economic, and cultural diversity of that small group of islands. A young actor will go from playing a cockney thug one week to a Yorkshire farmer the next, to a member of the 1920s landed gentry the next. Their job is to depict characters that feel real, not fantastical. Their skills get regularly worked and enhanced. Their job is to become a chameleon.
Here are two recent British examples. They aren't perfect, because they both utilize a ridiculously handsome actor that naturally looks cool.
It took me about three episodes of Agent Carter to realize that the actor playing Jarvis was the same actor (James D'Arcy) that played the thug on Broadchurch.
And I had trouble mentally switching from watching Happy Valley to Grantchester. In one, James Norton plays a sadistic, sociopathic, rapist and killer and in the other he is a slightly foppish 1950s vicar.
Imagine you are casting a big movie, superhero or not. You want a young actor or actress with great range and skill. You want the audience to see your character. But, you also want someone new to the film audience (and cheap), so you start looking at some good television. Where are the chameleons coming from?

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To me, one of the most interesting observations concerned the difference between British and American art. The former emphasizes the linguistic, economic, and cultural diversity of their country and as such tends to focus on the nuances of real characters, whereas American leans towards youth, vitality, wealth, and exceptionalism. 

I'm a Canadian and we have always have our foot in both camps; the twin juggernauts of both American and British culture press in on both sides and both are reflected in our values, with notable differences across the regions. But our creative arts tend to emphasize character and diversity rather than exceptionalism and wealth. 

What do you think? Agree or disagree? Why?


Anna Chapman said...

Agree. I've lately become interested in Australian productions after seeing the film June Again and the entire Doctor Blake series. The acting is excellent (surely because of the grounded training Douglas mentions), youth and beauty are present but not foregrounded, and the cinematography and writing depart from American expectations in a refreshing manner.

Sybil Johnson said...

I like American and British TV equally. They are different, though.

American actors all seem to need to be thin and good-looking and... If they're not, they get relegated to supporting roles. The leads in British shows often look like, well, normal people.

American soaps all seem to be about upper class people while Australian and British soaps feature middle and working class people.

For a long time, on American shows you always knew the main characters would survive. Not so much on British TV shows.

And, accents. Brits can do pretty good American accents, but IMO, the best come from Australian and New Zealand actors.