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Inside Television: Is American Horror Story returning to the bad old days?


To viewers unfamiliar with the show, the news that American Horror Story had cast world's smallest woman, Jyoti Amge might be a cause for concern - especially since the latest installment of the anthology is subtitled 'Freak Show'. Is this a return to the bad old days when people with disabilities were treated as curiosities to be gawped at? Happily, there’s reason to think otherwise

The attitudes of casting directors have changed a lot since able-bodied Raymond Burr was cast as wheelchair-using detective in Ironside. While lead characters with disabilities are still rare, those roles that do exist are now frequently filled by actors with disabilities. Oscar-winning deaf actress Marlee Matlin played Joey Lucas, deaf political pollster and love interest of Josh Lyman, in The West Wing. RJ Mitte understood how cerebral palsy would affect his character Walter White Jr. in Breaking Bad, because he too has the condition. Peter Dinklage in Game of Thrones is probably the most well-known actor with a disability working today. In the most recent series he delivered a tour de force performance as Tyrion Lannister, exploring how a man with dwarfism is driven to both defy and conform to the expectations of those around him. 

The difference between these examples and the most recent series of American Horror Story is exemplified by the character of powerful psychic and witch Nan.  Nan is played by Jamie Brewer who has Down Syndrome, but the role could also have been played by a different actress - provided, of course, she had Brewer’s charisma. If the other members of her coven consider Nan to have a disability, it is hardly mentioned, let alone central to the role.

Brewer is set to return for American Horror Story: Freak Show alongside Amge and  likely several other actors who differ in some way from TV’s physical norm. If past form is anything to go by, it won’t be the mere casting of these actors that’s worth celebrating, however, it will be the fact that their characters are as nuanced and surprising as any other. 

Familiar face joins the Bloomsbury set

Every week thousands of hours of drama are broadcast on television so how is it that a handful of the same actors seem to appear in everything? Come autumn, Olivia Colman must relinquish her title of TV’s Most Ubiquitous for a newly familiar face. 

James Norton, the 28-year-old actor from Yorkshire, is currently best known as rapist-murderer Tommy Lee Royce in Happy Valley, but he was also in the Christmas period drama Death Comes to Pemberley and an episode of Doctor Who. He’s set to star as crime-solving clergyman Sidney Chambers in ITV’s new six-part series Grantchester. Then there’s also Life in Square, the new BBC drama about the Bloomsbury set in which he plays painter Duncan Grant. In fact, the only upcoming drama you can guarantee won’t feature a cameo from the indefatigable Norton, is the second series of Happy Valley. His character was killed off during the nail-biting series one finale...Or was he?

You loved The Honourable Woman, now what?

BBC 2 series The Honourable Woman ended this week, but if your love for it had only just begun, here are some suggestions for further watching: 1. Check out Andrew Buchan displaying the integrity Ephra often lacked as a 17th century baker in ITV’s new period drama The Great Fire. 3. Track down a copy of excellent 1995 made-for-TV movie Citizen X to see Stephen Rea playing detective once more - this time on the tail of a Russian serial killer. 3. Use your own newly sharpened deduction skills to revisit Hugo Blick’s earlier TV series The Shadow Line and work out what that was all about. If you make any headway, let me know.


The Honourable Woman, 4oD

This drama series about politics in the Middle East has been, challenging, infuriating and compelling in equal measure - exactly the kind of TV that should be on BBC Two. In this final episode Maggie Gyllenhaal shone as ambitious, but flawed philanthropist Nessa Stein, but don’t let her Hollywood dazzle blind you to the rest of the cast. Excellent performances all round. 


Doctor Who ‘The Time of The Doctor’ BBC iPlayer

You’ve got about 12 hours left to watch the Christmas special episode - and Mat Smith’s last as Doctor - before it is forever banished to another dimension (aka the BBC archives). ‘The Time of The Doctor’ also functions as the perfect warm-up for the TV event of the year; Peter Capaldi’s Doctor Who debut on Saturday night


Worst Place To Be A Pilot, 4OD

Documentaries with the word ‘worst’ in the title are usually hastily bodged together examples of questionable journalistic ethics. This new series about the ex-pat pilots who’ve taken a job in Indonesia’s Susi Airlines is an exception. They’re real life adventurers with nerves of steel. What kind of person takes on a job like this? Hopefully we’ll soon find out. 


Suspects, Demand 5

This semi-improvised ultra-realistic police procedural is the kind of form-bending drama you’d expect to find at a French film festival, not on Channel 5. But here it is anyway, and inexplicably it’s even made it back for a second series. If you know your CSIs inside out and never miss an episode of Law & Order, this offers a fascinating change of pace.