Why an ensemble cast matters.

From Wikipedia:  An ensemble cast is made up of cast members in which the principal actors and performers are assigned roughly equal amounts of importance and screen time in a dramatic production. This is in contrast to films which develop and focus on certain main characters more so than others. This kind of casting became more popular in television series because it allows flexibility for writers to focus on different characters in different episodes.

In my opinion, the following shows have had or have the best ensemble casts, in no particular order – (these are not always my favorite shows…in one case, the show is my least favorite) -

1.  Friends

2.  Seinfeld (hate it)

3.  Sex and the City

4.  NCIS

5.  Breaking Bad

6.  Mad Men

7.  Sons of Anarchy

8.  Modern Family

9.  The Big Bang Theory

10. True Blood

11. Grey’s Anatomy

12. Fringe

(My three favorite ensemble casts of all time– Star Trek, the original, Firefly… and no, Joss Whedon is not forgiven for what he did to Wash but at least it came at the end of the story, and the cast of Battlestar Galactica.)

and until the past two episodes:  The Walking Dead.

There’s a difference between writing for a one-dimensional comic book character and a three dimensional television series.  Although I’m not a huge fan of the graphic novel, The Walking Dead, I am a fan.  I’m a much bigger fan of the concept behind the graphic novel.  Multiply that by 100, and you will begin to understand my fan-ship of the television series.

The television series is like a 3-D coloring book.  The ensemble cast, and the sometimes stellar writing, bring the characters to life, but for me it’s the ensemble cast that makes the difference.

Let’s use NCIS as an example.

I’m a big NCIS fan.  Do the writers recycle story lines?  Of course they do, but that’s not why I watch.  I am a loyal fan because of Gibbs, Ducky, Tony, McGee, Abby, Ziva, Palmer, Leon, and their interactions, good/bad, functional/dysfunctional that animate one-dimensional scripts.  What is a script but words on a page?  It’s the characters who breathe life into the story.

Thus this letter regarding Shane’s demise on TWD which I sent in response to a friend’s question – How do you feel about Shane’s Death?

“I agree with you, the acting was stellar and the final scene shocking.  However, I think the show would be better if the writers kept the ensemble alive.  That’s what makes for compelling, must watch, drama.  The audience cares about a core group – the characters and leadership can change from time to time, and it should as the characters adapt to this new world… for example Andrea’s character has changed.  However, using Shane and Dale’s grisly deaths as impetus for Rick’s growth seems phony.  I want Rick to grow as a natural outcome of events.  An attempt to make him a man over night doesn’t work for me.

“In an interview I read after the show, John B. said he tried to play the scene as if he’d had enough, he was ready to die and in dying, make Rick the man who could take care of Lori and Carl.

“The way I see it, he took a plot devise and did the best he could with it. And if you don’t have a character like Shane – an obvious mix of good and bad, a man who can do what needs to be done, a man who can’t dissemble – who wears his heart on his sleeve, the entire group dynamic suffers a terrible loss in terms of depth.  You risk pigeonholing the remaining characters.

“Consider Daryl, the survivor.  I adore Daryl, but he’s neutral.  He has no desire play a leadership role nor does he want anyone looking to him to make decisions for the group.  The way the writers are using Daryl to do Rick’s bidding annoys me.  Daryl looks out for Daryl first and foremost.  If you want to come along for the ride, then hop on, but it’s always on his terms.  And therein lies his appeal.  Take that  away from him at your peril.

“By the way, who elected Rick leader?  Sorry… nobody.  I don’t recall a vote.  Shane was the one who kept the group alive before Rick showed up. They all owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

“And, please, if anyone is listening, give T-Dog a role.  Let him step up and be a leader.  He’s used as a glorified house slave.  I’d be so pissed if I were T-Dog!  He can take over some of the Dale former role as group conscience – speaking of which, it was a big mistake to get rid of Dale.

“Rick blew it for me over these recent episodes by saving that kid, then deciding to let him go, then deciding to execute him, then deciding to let him go.  If you’re gonna save him, then you take responsibility, man.  Kill him, let him go, or use him as labor.  See if he can be brought into the group, but don’t ask anyone else to babysit him or beat him or take any responsibility for him.

“I’ll watch one more season.  I’m hoping the writers give Carol something to do, aside from turning her into zombie fodder.  Dear God, please make Andrea the leader.  And tell Glen to man-up.  He’s losing it.

“Oh, and without Shane around, who the hell is gonna watch Carl???

“At this point in the series, I like two characters – Andrea and Hershel. I would still be hot on Daryl if he hadn’t morphed into Rick’s little buddy, ala, Gilligan and the Skipper.  That’s not good.  Perhaps one of the issues for the writers was Shane’s popularity.  Too much competition for the character they want to focus on, the man who is the one significant character in the graphic novel, Rick.

“I lived with the knowledge that Shane might not be long for this series, as he dies early on in the graphic novel. I’d hoped the writers would change their minds and keep him around.  However, what happened to Shane the second half of this season was flat out character assassination, nothing less.”

Words of wisdom from Jaye Manus:  First rule of plotting when you find yourself in a corner: don’t change the characters, change the situation and give the characters something new to worry about. 

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21 Responses to Why an ensemble cast matters.

  1. Penelope says:

    Most important part of any book, film, story….the characters. No matter how cool the special effects, the paranormal world, the convoluted mystery. It always comes back to one thing. The characters.

    You kill ‘em off, you’re killing the story.


  2. Jaye says:

    You nailed it, Julia. The production values and the quality of the actors are carrying this season, but the writing mistakes keep piling up. I think the only reason I’d watch the next episode is if I knew EVERYONE was going to get eaten by the zombie army and then just to see the gore fest. It’s very difficult to muster any emotional energy to care about any of the characters anymore.

  3. Penelope says:

    Jaye is a blood-thirsty wench. Just sayin’…..

  4. Jaye says:

    Hey, if you can’t love ‘em, make ‘em go splat…

  5. I love NCIS….It is one of the best shows out there….

  6. I agree, Savannah! It’s the characters….

  7. Jaye, Penny – calm down. They’ll all be zombies soon enough!

  8. Jaye, I’m pretty shocked because you are a big Daryl fan! When did he get emasculated?

  9. Yup Penny, yup and yup. Like Curly said in City Slickers – “One thing…”

  10. Jaye says:

    Darryl can be the lone survivor. Then it’ll be Omega Man with a crossbow.

  11. And then, Jaye, I will follow Daryl forever.

  12. Jaye says:

    Of course, you realize, if Darryl is the Omega Man, then by default we will be zombies and trying to eat him. Mmm, brains…

  13. Oh Jay, I could never eat Daryl. Not the real Daryl. I’ll eat the Gilligan Daryl….

  14. Tom Stronach says:

    Oh get a life ——– Kidding

    Anyway as I said before gave up on TWD after the first series but Sons of Anarchy and NCIS especially the latter, still lovin them.

    Fringe, from the moment it started loved it, still do, but does seem to be getting overcomplicated, but the acting when two of the same characters end up in the same reality which is the big thing at the moment is superb especially the recent one with the two Astrid’s, really great acting

    Modern Family – every time I see it Al Bundy pops into my mind, has to be one of the BEST ever comedy ensembles and of course the wonderful Katy Segal and now the ‘Mother’ of the Bikers. Ron Perlman has always been a little under rated by people, but again I think he has depth and what a bad ass arranging for his wifes’ grandsons mother to be knocked off … give me more

  15. I have no life, Tom… it revolves around Shane! And zombies! Seriously, you know the end of the world is upon us when we are riveted by a zombie apocalypse. I think it’s a healthy way to avoid looking at the real problems out there.
    Plus I like damn good story telling and I get all pissy when the stories go to hell.

  16. Casey Wyatt says:

    Wow! It’s like we share a brain. I don’t watch any of the shows on your (except True Blood – but that is so I can drool over Joe M). And I loved Star Trek and Battlestar. I have seen most of Firefly (love Adam Baldwin.) Jaye is so right. I need to plaster that one on my mental bulletin board.

  17. Oh Casey, Adam Baldwin’s Jayne Cobb is to die for! He and River Tam are my favorite characters – great stuff!

  18. anny cook says:

    MASH. Waltons. Probably some others I’ve forgotten. :-)

  19. Oh yeah, Anny, MASH was stellar! Just wonderful. I never watched The Waltons. But yes, MASH is a perfect example.

  20. Tom Abbott says:

    Firefly for me has got to be the best example of how so many different characters can come together. I scanned blogs and websites once to see who peoples’ favorites were. #1 was Mel, though no one gave a reason why. #2 was a toss-up between River and Jane. The least favorite characters were Inara, Zoe, and Tam.

  21. Hi Tom. Nice site you’ve got there! I would say Jayne and River are tied for my favorite characters with Mel a close second. I love Mel, it’s just that River is unique and Jayne is so…well, Jayne. My husband loves Inara, but she’s probably my least favorite.