What Exactly Is A 'Casual Vacancy,' Anyway?

Are you ready to get that signature J.K. Rowling wit and detail back on your television screen. I know I can't wait for HBO's debut of the mini-series adaptation of Rowling's The Casual Vacancy. If you haven't read Rowling's dark comedy yourself, you may be wondering — just what does a "casual vacancy" mean? I remember looking up the phrase the second the title was announced in an attempt to re-charge my inner obsessive Harry Potter fan, but I know that I am in a select few. I am sorry to report that the series is not about a chill motel looking for new tenants. The novel and mini-series about a local election in a small town in England that arises after the death of a man named Barry Fairweather.

In British, New Zealand and Australian politics, the term "casual vacancy" refers to an empty seat on an assembly that arises for a reason other than the representative's term being up. So if a person resigns, is disqualified, jailed or dies in the middle of their term then there is a casual vacancy. It's pretty simple. In the case of Rowling's story, what The Casual Vacancy brings about is far more interesting. This is how the official HBO press release describes the tale.

The Casual Vacancy is also the story of a village tearing itself apart, revealing the townspeople’s idiosyncrasies, and addressing social responsibility and one’s response to the poor and disadvantaged. At times darkly funny, it portrays a town whose residents are selfishly stuck in their beliefs and traditions, unaware they have the power to change. This sadly comical selfishness comes to play an important role as events unfold.

In the United States, we would call this situation a cause for a "special election" as opposed to a general election. On The West Wing, a special election in Congress is what caused Rob Lowe's character Sam Seaborn to exit the series. However, I don't think"The Special Election by J.K. Rowling" has quite the same ring to it, does you? The Harry Potter series may have changed "philosopher's stone " to "sorcerer's stone," "sherbet lemon" to "lemon drop" and "trainers" to "sneakers" in American printings, but some things are just better British!

Back in 2012, J.K. Rowling revealed in an interview with The Guardian that she got the idea while flying to do press for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

"Obviously I need to be in some form of vehicle to have a decent idea," she laughs. Having dreamed up Potter on a train, "This time I was on a plane. And I thought: local election! And I just knew. I had that totally physical response you get to an idea that you know will work. It's a rush of adrenaline, it's chemical. I had it with Harry Potter and I had it with this. So that's how I know."

So there you have it. Without giving away too many spoilers, let me just say that the election occurs at a critical moment for Pagford that makes all the difference. Here's the trailer, where you can hear Michael Gambon surreptitiously utter "we have a casual vacancy" — now that you know what that means, is it a little less ominous?

Image: Steffan Hill/HBO