To television executives depressed over the dwindling audiences for reality TV shows and looking for ways to reinvigorate the once hugely profitable genre, the following pitch might be compelling. "We've got this great show for you. We're going to take six strangers and strand them somewhere really remote; we'll film them as they struggle to survive. You say it's already been done there's I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! and Survivor and, here in Britain, Castaway. But here's the twist: our participants will be ... disabled! Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Cast Offs, a uniquely challenging reality TV show."
As the scale of that unique challenge dawns on the contestants in the hours after they are deposited on a lonely island, one of the castoffs coins a more succinct description of the show. "This is going to be Lord of the Flies on crack," says Tom.
The blind, pathologically lazy 38-year-old is half right. Unlike the schoolboy protagonists of William Golding's dystopian novel, Tom and the rest of the castoffs won't actually end up committing murder, but few other taboos will be left standing by the conclusion of the series. And, just like Lord of the Flies, Cast Offs is fictional. The show, scheduled to begin airing on Britain's Channel 4 on Nov. 24, is a mockumentary-style drama that apes the reality format it satirizes and seethes with sex, profanity and gloriously politically incorrect dialogue. But it stars actors who in real life share the same disabilities of the characters they portray.
It's the twisted brainchild of producer Joel Wilson, whose previous oeuvres include the 2003 British TV show spoof Osama and U.S., in which Wilson and his regular collaborator Jamie Campbell try to solve their financial problems by finding Osama bin Laden and claiming the reward. Wilson originally envisaged Cast Offs "as something broadly satirical that would poke fun at the way disability is generally viewed ... We wanted to show the disabled were no more and no less f___ed up than anyone else." When writer Jack Thorne came on board he's the creative talent behind the edgy, teen-drama series Skins and Shameless, a comedy about a wildly dysfunctional working-class family he took the project in a more sophisticated direction, creating a layered story line that lures viewers into caring about the characters even as they laugh at the stupidity of anyone who voluntarily consigns him- or herself to the human zoo that is reality TV.
In his early 20s Thorne developed chronic cholinergic urticaria, a condition that makes him allergic even to the heat generated by his own body. "When I became disabled, I didn't become a better person. I just became a different person," he says. He shares with the disabled cast a desire to get away from the archetypes of disability that populate film and television. The castoffs aren't noble minds trapped in unusual bodies. Indeed, they soon reveal their true colors by endlessly complaining, shirking responsibility and squabbling with one another.
Gabriella, 32, profoundly deaf and several months pregnant, refuses to try to understand Carrie, a 28-year-old with dwarfism, telling her that her mouth is simply too small to lip-read. "People speak of the disabled community, but we're the most diverse community," says Kiruna Stamell, the Australian actress who plays Carrie. "Even with short-statured people, we come from different backgrounds, different cultures. The shared experience we have is social discrimination."
Each episode focuses on a different contestant. There's Will, a man long on bitterness and like many of the children of mothers who were prescribed Thalidomide to prevent morning sickness short of limb. The character is brought to the screen by Mat Fraser, a performer so determined to transcend his disability that he became a rock drummer before turning to acting. April, a research scientist suffering from cherubism, a condition that causes severe facial disfigurement, is played by first-time actor and cherubism sufferer Victoria Wright. Peter Mitchell, another debut performer, had looked forward to a career as a top-flight soccer player before a car crash redesigned his life. He plays Dan, the wheelchair-using focus of Carrie's burgeoning lust. "My sexual relationship with Dan will really challenge people," says Stamell.
British audiences had better get used to being challenged on their assumptions about how TV actors and presenters should look. Stamell already appears on the popular BBC soap opera EastEnders as a teacher her disability is incidental to the plotline. In addition, BBC is launching a drive to find new disabled talent for its programming, and another broadcaster has hired a facially disfigured man to present its news bulletins this week.
Where Britain leads, at least on television, others follow. In recent years, programs as diverse as The Office and Strictly Come Dancing have made comfortable transitions across the Atlantic, and reality TV show formats have found multiple berths abroad. If viewers succumb to the charms of six disabled characters behaving badly, the rest of the world may soon be scrambling to recondition Cast Offs, too.