27 November, 2009

What the Papers Say: "Cast Offs"

Lucy Mangan, The Guardian

"Cast Offs is a new comedy-drama from Channel 4 about a fictional reality show about six disabled people (played by actors who share their characters' disabilities), voluntarily marooned on a British island. Each episode focuses on a different character, their backstory alternating with scenes from their stranded present; last night belonged to wheelchair-bound Dan, beautifully played by Peter Mitchell. The show-within-a-show conceit so far seems unnecessary: just as the flashback narrative is drawing us in (last night's was full of tough and tender details of life as a newly disabled man), everything stops for stilted banter on the island. Unless this is intended to do something as crass as prove that disabled people can be as dislikable as any non-disabled reality show contestants, it seems pointless. Maybe this strand will reach the standard set by the other element soon – the second episode is tonight, so we shall see."


Tom Sutcliffe, The Independent

"Cast Offs
, Channel 4's new drama about six disabled people comes with a narrative scaffolding designed to get you over any viewer prejudice that might be aroused by the phrase "drama about six disabled people". It presents itself as a kind of Big Brother reality exercise, in which a selection pack of the "differently abled" are marooned on an island for three months to see how they survive. "This isn't a camping trip, April..." said one of the participants. "We're here to prove something." One of the things they're there to prove, it seems, is that the disabled can be just as dirty-minded and grumpy and clumsy in the face of disability as anyone else – the early scenes offering a positive orgy of political incorrectness of various kinds. That's all a little laborious, as is the reality show armature itself, which is never used to satirise television itself (as it might easily have been) but only as a way of getting these very disparate people into one place, so that they can have flashbacks about their ordinary lives. But the flashbacks are surprisingly good, far exceeding the gimmick that has winched them into place.

Each episode cuts between ensemble scenes on the island and a more focused version of one character's back story. Last night, it was Dan's turn and this account of a young man coming to terms with his paralysis was beautifully done, including some touching scenes between Dan and his parents, in which all the self-conscious gaminess of the island sequences dropped away to be replaced by something that looked awkwardly true to life. It may be that future episodes do more with the gimmicky frame, but for the moment it's what's inside it that's worth watching.


Alex Hardy, The Times

"Jack Thorne, the lead creator of Cast Offs, has a mission statement for the taboo-breaking comedy drama in which six disabled people take up a Survivor-style reality TV challenge: “To get away from the usual patronising division of most disabled people on screen into ‘acerbic or tragic’.” Ushered into existence by writers of Skins, Shameless and The Thick of It pedigree, and reinforced at script-writing stage by the experiences of its disabled cast, there’s no reason for mission unaccomplished, right? But here’s the rub — and it’s possibly an easy trap to fall into when you’re trying to smash taboos — last night’s opener felt so heavy-handed that acerbity and tragedy ran through it like SodaStream bubbles.

If the main message was that disabled reality TV contestants can be just as odious as “normal” reality TV contestants, that was certainly achieved (although blind Mikey from Big Brother 9, with his vile shoutiness and nose picking, has already blazed that trail).

Filmed in mockumentary style, each of the six episodes focuses on one of the castaways. Last night we learnt that kindly Dan, recently made paraplegic by a car accident, was just as likely to be bullied on “Spastic Island” (their words) as by his wheelchair basketball team-mates back home. In flashbacks his chair-bound buddies stole his pants; now his reality show peers desert him, sans chair, on a dark beach after skinny-dipping, just as he was feeling at home with his new self. How could we not feel wretched for him?

The “comedy”, alas, wasn’t skilfully done. Deaf Gabby smited Carrie, a dwarf, for having a mouth too small to lip-read — but so often that it lost any comical smack. A clumsy layer of crude was then poured on; “little lips” becoming one of the show’s many too-easy euphemisms. Surprisingly, the writing became even more clunky when they tackled disability head-on: Dan used forced lines such as “old me, new me, f*** me” to describe his post-accident chagrins.

Its darkness, silences and quiet asides did much more to build genuine poignancy. Moments of Dan’s backstory were reminiscent of The Street — when a girl came home with him despite his wheelchair, his dad bobbed around with meerkat-on-Ritalin curiosity. This quietly delivered the message that disability is as much about people around you coming to terms with it as coming to terms with it yourself.

Some lovely lines flowed when the focus drew away from disability. Dan’s dad recounted that Dan’s accident happened when he lit a fag; his mum interjected, all motherly: “I didn’t even know he smoked.” The less we confronted the castaways’ physicality, the more intriguing they became. Deaf Gabby was most amusing when she was just the dappy-girl-on-reality-TV, saying things such as “I like fire”. Will drew us in by being ignored at the campfire — not by being thalidomide-affected.

Perhaps it was a mistake to start with Dan, who is more explicitly tragic because he’s still adapting to his own disability, so nice that he makes others look mean. Perhaps Cast Offs just isn’t well-written enough to fulfil its goals. Perhaps it’s me as a spectator who is still too self-conscious, not sure whether it’s OK to laugh at synchronised wheelchair dancing. Wherever the awkwardness lies, I’m intrigued enough to watch tonight’s episode, featuring blind Tom. Hopefully Cast Offs will grow more of the courage of its apparent conviction, and let the characters farther transcend their disabilities as it moves away from this harsh first-episode initiation."


James Walton, Daily Telegraph

"None the less, at this stage, Channel 4’s Cast Offs (whose second episode is on tonight) looks much more promising. In theory, a comedy-drama about disabled people, with a disabled cast and two disabled writers, might imply something well-meaning but ultimately too pious. In practice, this one perhaps overestimates the shock value of disabled people being interested in sex – but otherwise goes about its business with an impressive lack of self-consciousness.

It even manages to rise above the clichéd framework of a fictional reality show: in this case one where Channel 4 has sent the characters to a remote island “to prove differently abled people can achieve self-sufficiency”. The supposed show itself is neatly interwoven with flashbacks to the participants’ lives in the months beforehand, creating an effect not unlike a plucky British version of Lost. The flashbacks duly illuminate the characters’ island behaviour, but with a cast of only six, and a series budget that would fund about three minutes of the average American drama.

In each episode too, the flashbacks will focus Lost-style on a different character. Last night it was the turn of Dan (Peter Mitchell), a young bloke from Northern Ireland recently paralysed from the waist down in a car crash. As we watched him building his new life, the strongest and certainly the most original sections concerned the clumsy attempts of his loving parents to put on a brave face. There was even the dark (and very courageous) suggestion that at some deep-buried level they were almost pleased that his disability meant he needed them again – just as he had when he was still their little boy."


Catch up:


No comments: