Sunday, January 11, 2015


Today is the birthday of actor Marc Blucas, and I mean no disrespect--I'm sure he's a nice guy and all--but it seems like as good a reason as any to explore the little-discussed cultural phenomenon of the Made-For-TV actor.

Television is a unique medium because its text is ever-changing by its very nature.  A novel may turn out very differently from its authors original intentions, but the reader only ever sees the finished work.  The script of a movie may go through dozens of different drafts, but we only see the version that was filmed.  And a play is a text set in stone; it can be interpreted any number of ways, but the words and actions will always be the same.

But a successful TV series is its own beast.  Even if its creators have a particular goal in mind, the workaday nature of TV production can provide detours along the way, or even change the goal.  The network nixes a particular plot development.  A planned location is suddenly unavailable.  A necessary scene is simply too complicated to pull off within the scheduled time and budget.

And then there's the actors.  Casting a TV show is a leap of faith.  The evolving nature of a TV show means that characters are liable to be put through some pretty extraordinary paces, be required to do things whether comedic or dramatic that the creators may not have originally intended.  And that may require the actors to deploy a skill set that they simply don't possess.

A sidebar here: For the longest time, there was believed to be a clear difference between "movie actors" and "TV actors".  Movie actors could do more heavy dramatic lifting, and more importantly, they had charisma, they had cool.  Steve McQueen, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton--those were movie actors.  TV actors could do light drama, light comedy, and were familiar comforting presences: David Janssen, Alan Alda, the casts of most seventies sitcoms.

But even among the actors that toiled in the TV trenches, there was a subset: The Made-For-TV actor.  These were guys (and they were mostly guys) like Ben Murphy or Gil Gerald, affable, unthreatening presences with only trace amounts of charisma, doomed forever to star in shows like Gemini Man or Buck Rogers, programs that only got on the air because a network couldn't just schedule dead air for an hour.  You see someone like Gil Gerald in a show, you immediately know you're seeing the third or fourth choice for the role.

Back to my main point: Once an actor is cast on a series, the character evolves, mostly because the writers see what the actor brings to the role.  The classic example is Edward Asner's role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show--it became obvious that he could do absolutely anything, nail any punchline but also break your heart.  Moore's name may have remained in the title, but Asner clearly was the soul of the series.

The first season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is a fairly rough ride, as you see the writers and the actors struggling to figure out exactly what they want from the show and its characters.  But what the sow will be is still there, in embryonic form; it just needs to evolve.

And it does, quickly.  The actors assembled by creator/producer Joss Whedon may not have the technical chops of more rigorously trained thespians, but they're perfect for their roles, and as the show goes along, the writers clearly play to their strengths.  And more delightfully, it's the kind of show that can mock itself and its cast--when other characters discuss Buffy's idiosyncrasies, they're as much discussing the various shades of Sarah Michelle Gellar's performance. 

All of which brings us to Marc Blucas.  Introduced as Buffy's love interest in Season 4, Blucas stands out like a sore thumb in this series.  It's not entirely his fault--his character has no real traces of personality, but that's probably at least partly due to the fact that he's written as a fairly standard-issue jock, and you don't get the feeling that the writer's room of this particular show was filled with people who knew much about jocks.

Still, Buffy specialized in characters who seemed to be one thing but turned out to be much more.  And maybe that was the intention, but it became obvious that Blucas just wasn't up to it.  But he didn't go away, and his presence undermined the entire season.  He could have been like Margaret Dumont in a Marx Brothers movie, only Blucas didn't seem to realize he was the straight man.  (The original Marx Brothers analogy I was going to use was Alan Jones--the bland romantic lead nobody cares about--but in earlier Marx pictures that role was usually essayed by Zeppo, and as all Buffy fans know, the show already had its own Zeppo.)  He had no self-awareness at all.  He played his character as a straight-ahead TV type, a Ben Murphy on a show that had no use for Ben Murphys.

In that sense, he may have represented the last of a line.  Sure, there are still TV actors hilariously outmatched by the demands of their part--have you tried sitting through that new Katherine Heigl thing?--but it's very rare to find a purely Made-For-TV actor anymore.  Thanks in no small part to Buffy itself, TV writing has become smarter and deeper than ever before.  There are still time-killer shows, but even those incredibly formulaic CBS procedurals showcase the likes of Joe Mantegna and Laurence Fishburne.  The days of Ben Murphy, Gil Gerald--and Marc Blucas--may be gone forever.