Casting About

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This is Associated Press TV writer Frazier Moore watching television for KCRW, and paying tribute to some unsung heroes of TV shows: the people who cast them.

Here's a little story.  I'm at a birthday party for a classmate of my kid's, years ago, where I run into another father. He's an actor and a good one, not a household name but someone you'd know. And he tells me he's up for the lead in a TV series about a detective, one battling an obsessive-compulsive disorder. He gives me a sample of his audition scene, investigating a murder in somebody's kitchen while worrying that, back at home in his own kitchen, he might have left his oven on.

I don't think I need to tell you the series was Monk, and as my friend talked about it, I could really see him in the role.

But it wasn't up to me, and when Monk premiered in 2002, the title character was played, instead, by Tony Shalhoub. The show was a hit and he has since won three best-actor Emmys.

What's my point? That we're all aware of the success of Monk, but most of us knew little, and thought less, about what put Tony Shalhoub in Detective Monk's shoes.

Can you imagine anyone else but Tony Shalhoub as Monk? Anyone but Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House? Who but Steve Carell could fill the bill as branch manager on NBC's The Office?

The right casting choice seems preordained, as if the actor were born to play that role and only needed to come claim it. And not just the stars, but also supporting characters: think of the ensemble on NBC's new drama Friday Night Lights -- uniformly wonderful actors who shine as citizens of mythical Dillon, Texas, in part because they were hand-picked ... brilliantly.

And let's not forget the mountainous task of casting one-shot roles. There are, for example, more than three dozen speaking roles per episode for Law & Order. That's 800 in a season, a season-long avalanche of resumes and photos.

As we audience members size up a TV show or film, we routinely weigh in on many behind-the-scenes collaborators: director, writer, cinematographer, those who do the lighting, music and sound. But when's the last time you saluted, or blasted, a casting director?

That's pretty ironic, isn't it, since each actor on the screen is only there by the grace of the casting process, a process of reaching out or weeding out, and then ... a leap of faith.

Now I don't mean to suggest that a single, all-knowing potentate does all this picking and choosing. Casting is a calculus of artistic and market forces, of egos and checkbooks and gut instinct. And it's generally a committee decision. Which makes it impressive that, more often than not, it all comes together -- and it does so, from the audience's standpoint, invisibly.

When it doesn't, well, that's a useful eye-opener.

For one telling lapse in casting mojo, check Fox's new mystery, Vanished, about the abduction of a U.S. senator's wife and the FBI agent who leads the recovery effort. I like this show, but I watch in spite of the two stars. Baby-faced Gale Harold is all wrong as the FBI agent, and, playing the frantic husband, John Allen Nelson comes across as a stiff.

With its anemic ratings, don't count on Vanished to be on the air much longer. And maybe its bum casting helps explain why.

But that's only more reason to recognize the mechanism of casting, when it works, for what it is: an art and a science and a flash of clairvoyance. It's detective work even Monk might find challenging.

Watching television for KCRW, this is Associated Press TV writer Frazier Moore.