Recycle Your Character Actors

Not being a frequent Two and a Half Men viewer, I will tune in for the season premiere to see a) How they kill off Charlie Sheen and b) How contrived an excuse they create for having Ashton Kutcher invite Jon Cryer and his kid to live in the house with him. (I root for it to be as contrived and awkward as possible, of course. The fun thing about a re-tool is that the writers have to establish a premise that nobody would have pitched as the premise for a new show. If you were writing a new series about a super-cool leather-jacketed mechanic, you wouldn’t have him hang out with high school kids and move into a room over the garage of a typical white-bread ’50s family. New show premises have to make sense. Re-tool premises don’t.) Also I’ll check the ratings afterward to see how they are: we know they will be higher for the first post-Sheen episode than for the ones that follow, but I wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility that even that first episode will be lower-rated than a typical Sheen episode.

But I was a bit interested by the news that Judy Greer will join the cast playing a character named “Bridget” who broke Kutcher’s heart or something. Interested not because of the character, but because she has appeared on the show twice before playing a different character. This is perfectly normal to my mind: a show needs an actor for a new regular or recurring part, so it turns to someone who has already been on before and whom the producers already know is good. But it’s not all that common now.

This got me wondering whether producers of an older generation have fewer hang-ups about repeat casting than younger producers. One of the most famous two-peats of recent years was David Milch using Garret Dillahunt twice on Deadwood. This led to a fair number of objections, or at least comments to the effect that this was a mistake. (Fametracker’s statement is typical: “are we supposed to think the characters are brothers? Soul twins? Clones?”) But it may have been more that Milch really likes Dillahunt, as we all do, and wanted to use him again. Dick Wolf, of course, is famous for two-peats, and the Star Trek franchise has done it a lot.

But for younger producers, particularly those who are really plugged into online fandom, the objections to two-peat casting are more pressing. As TV Tropes mentions in its “You Look Familiar” section, Joss Whedon likes using actors multiple times, but tended to avoid using them multiple times on the same show (unless, like Jeff Kober, they were hidden behind enough makeup to make them look different each time, and even there, there was plenty of online speculation that “Rack” was the same guy Kober played in his third-season appearance). And you won’t see many comedies doing what NewsRadio did with Jon Lovitz, using him as multiple guest characters and finally as a regular character, or what Barney Miller did with Phil Leeds and other recurring actors.

This isn’t stated as an objection, because you do what works, and with more online commentary – and easier availability of older episodes while the show is on – it might not work to have the same actor pop up in different roles all the time, at least on some shows. Fans today are very into the illusion of reality, as well as the idea of continuity, that each episode is part of a larger whole. Bringing back the same actor in a new role shatters that continuity to a certain extent, emphasizing that this is make-believe and that the previous episodes are over and forgotten. That’s even more jarring than re-casting a role with a different actor – that shatters the illusion, but it doesn’t write a previously existing character out of existence. That may also be why it’s jarring to viewers in a way that multiple roles in the same story, a la Peter Sellers, is not. The multiple characters are all played by the same person, but they are all “real” within the framework of the story. But on TV, when a guy shows up as a new character, it’s a sign that the old character is gone forever (unless they actually did get rid of the old character; this may be how Milch got away with the double casting).

So M*A*S*H had Harry Morgan as a crazy General, and he impressed the producers enough that when they needed a new commanding officer character, they called on Morgan. This worked in part because there was no direct continuity with that earlier episode, so there was no indication that Morgan’s guest character would ever be mentioned or thought of. Today, fans would remember the earlier episode, and more importantly, the writers would – or at least they’d leave themselves the option of doing so. And that would mean that two Harry Morgan characters sort of exist within the same “universe,” which they didn’t in the original version. This may be why the strategy can work for Two and a Half Men, a mostly consequence-free show whose fans aren’t into analyzing the progress or past of the characters.

I don’t actually think that multiple roles would be a real problem even on a very serious show with continuing storylines, at least for much of the audience. But for dedicated fans and particularly dedicated online fans, I think it is a problem. Two-peat casting is a sign that the show doesn’t want to remember the character an actor played last time. This makes sense in the context of the average TV guest character, because most guest characters are indeed disposable, to be forgotten after one or two appearances. And it makes sense for a casual viewer. But a big fan of the show doesn’t forget anybody, and doesn’t like being implicitly told that certain characters or stories no longer matter.

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