Fair warning people, this week is a wee bit of a rant. It’s something that’s been bothering me for a while and I finally feel the need to vent about it.
So what is stunt casting? It’s that thing TV shows like to do when they have an actor from some now cancelled genre TV show appear in another TV series for ratings. For instance, Robert Englund appeared in an episode of Chuck as an evil scientist who can trap people in living nightmares. Yeah, I know, they weren’t even trying.
Ten years ago, you might have a popular actor on a scifi show that might go on to other shows, or movies, if they’re lucky. Maybe they might do guest roles, not just in geeky shows but whatever they can get. And some, it’s sad to say, might melt into obscurity. Not so, today. If you’re the star of a show with a geeky following, ka-ching, because stunt casting will at least keep you working, even if it means playing the same sorts of roles.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the occasional stunt casting. When done properly, it can be fun. For instance, reuniting half the cast of Twin Peaks for their Dual Spires episode of Psych was genius. But too many times, it’s just used for ratings, and it’s used way too often. Chuck was especially guilty of it. But not only Chuck, Supernatural had Buffy stars James Marsters and Charisma Carpenter reunite, Warehouse 13 had Firefly stars Jewel Staite and Sean Maher reunite, Eureka (Felicia Day, Michael Shanks) was guilty of it, oh yes, and Psych (William Shatner, Tom Lenk, Tony Hale), to name just a few. It’s one thing if the actor plays an interesting, different character, but then you have total cop-outs like Chuck vs. the Bullet Train where an underutilized Ben Browder appears as a bad guy.
The thing is, it’s not just television that’s getting in on this. It’s now seeping into the world of video games. Don’t get me wrong, I love that the quality of voice acting in video games has gone up these days, but do you need quite that many celebrity names on your imdb entry? I’m looking at you Bioware. Seriously, does anyone at all think Kal’Reegar sounds like a quarian? Cartoon Network is guilty of stunt casting in a big way. Just look at their casting for Justice League, it’s like a who’s who of fandom: Adam Baldwin, Morena Baccarin, Robert Picardo, Michael Ironside, Robert Englund, etc
So why do I have such a beef with this whole stunt casting business? Well, for one, it encourages crappy storytelling. The Chuck episode with Robert Englund is a perfect example. We don’t even have to try to create a story, just combine Nightmare on Elm Street with Chuck and voila, you have an episode people will watch. Why bother making the script interesting?
Also, as a geek, I take offence at the cashing in on geek popularity. Don’t get me wrong, I love the thought of seeing two Firefly actors reunited on television. And I definitely think they should all be working. But it’s a pretty cynical move for a studio to cast an actor simply because they already have a following. Plus, maybe, just maybe, I watch a show for the talented leads and tight storytelling, not the guest stars. Stunt casting is manipulative and frankly, it hurts the industry.
How does it hurt the industry? Well, for one thing, if you have a show in its third season, with flagging ratings, and they suddenly decide to pull out the stunt casting, it’s usually because they’re trying to prop up their own ratings by drawing in new viewers. Except, while some of those viewers might watch another episode or two, most are just drawn there by the guest actor. It’s bad for the show, and it’s taking up precious space in the schedule for fresh new shows.
Then there’s the fact that it’s hard on actors. Can you imagine being a new actor in Hollywood nowadays when you have to compete with the stars of shows like Firefly? I say give a new actor a chance! Unknown actors can have just as much impact on a show as some “star.” Two of my favourite guest actors have been Carey Mulligan as Sally Sparrow in Doctor Who and Christina Hendricks as Saffron in Firefly. Both were relative unknowns, playing large guest starring roles on popular genre shows. Both now have a huge following even though neither one of them have gone on to make genre shows a “career.” So there you have it, proof positive that you don’t need stunt casting to create great episodes of television.
So please, enough with the stunt casting already.