Large ensemble casts are taking over prime-time TV
Blame it on "Hill Street."
Or maybe it was "Dallas."
Wait. Was it the WJM-TV crew in Minneapolis?
Regardless of which prime-time show did the most to make large ensemble casts fashionable, today's TV series are taking the trend to a whole new level. For many series, even eight is enough no more.
While the five female leads of "Desperate Housewives" still get by far the most prominent play, ABC's media Web site now lists 18 cast members for that show.
NBC's "The Office" has a cast of 16, and ABC's "Lost" has 13. (That doesn't include Michael and Walt, last seen sailing away from the island, who also appear to have departed from the credits.)
It's small wonder that Hawaiian police arrested a couple of "Lost" players last season for driving under the influence. Too much downtime invites idle actors to drown their sorrows while pondering the inequities. "He's had four flashback episodes this season, and I've only had one."
Clearly, the more characters a show's writers have to "service," as they say, the harder it is to keep everybody happy. And that includes viewers. It can be frustrating, or at least baffling, when regulars disappear for several episodes -- which happens often on, for example, "The Sopranos."
And yet, the networks -- ABC especially -- are high on enormous casts. Whereas old-time medical shows like "Marcus Welby," "Ben Casey," "Dr. Kildare" or "Trapper John, M.D." pretty much revolved around a single doctor, who perhaps had a mentor or a protege as sidekick, "Grey's Anatomy" is named after a single surgical intern but now sports 11 regulars -- two more than when the show debuted. And even on Fox's "House," which is built around the amazing Hugh Laurie, his Dr. Gregory House has several acolytes, as well as a proactive boss and an oncologist best friend.
Among the new fall series, four -- NBC's "Heroes" and "Kidnapped" and CBS' "Jericho" and "The Class" -- each has 11 cast members. Despite its title, "The Nine" has a cast of 10, as do "Ugly Betty" and "Brothers & Sisters." And while NBC lists eight regulars for its new "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," that series looks like it has a cast of thousands.
It's a far cry from the days when you often could count the regulars on one hand.
"You need go no further than the titles. Shows used to be called `Starsky & Hutch,' `Kojak,' `Marcus Welby,' `Magnum P.I.,'" says TV historian Robert Thompson.
In those shows, besides the one or two main characters, there were a few supporting players. And relationships were easier to sort out -- especially in comedies.
"There were usually between four and eight characters, depending upon how many kids they had," Thompson says. "The relationships were obviously clear in a family sitcom. The old ones were parents or maids, the younger ones were the kids."
Consider, by contrast, CBS' aforementioned "The Class." Its pilot introduced an eclectic group of eight twentysomethings, who have reunited for the 20th anniversary of the day they met in third grade -- along with two spouses and one mother.
Thompson traces the beginning of the big-cast trend to "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (1970-77), which not only featured the characters in Mary Richards' newsroom, but neighbors Rhoda and Phyllis at home.
MTM Enterprises, the production company Moore had with then-husband Grant Tinker, furthered the trend with "Hill Street Blues" (1981-87), which viewers initially found "bewilderingly big," says Thompson, who correlates this with its dreadful Season 1 Nielsen ratings. "We had not yet learned to watch TV like that. But that started a revolution of sorts. Over the past 25 years, people have gotten used to watching television that's more complex, that you have to pay attention to. ... Prior to 1981, most television was designed to be enjoyed if you walked in halfway through or if you were in another room just listening to it.
"Now, mostly because of the huge success of `Lost,' we have gotten a whole bunch of shows debuting that break every rule of television -- they have enormous casts, complicated tasks, continuing story lines, oblique clues that you have to pay real attention to. ... Television has gotten a lot more sophisticated -- more sophisticated than what's going on in the movies."
To be sure, prime time also was influenced by nighttime soaps like "Dallas" in the late '70s and "Dynasty" in the '80s, which adopted daytime-drama conventions, including sprawling casts.
"The continuing story line requires a bigger cast," Thompson says.
So does the mayhem that's become a staple of sweeps periods, when even regular cast members aren't safe.
"On `24,' it's like a bloodbath, they kill off major characters one after another," says Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "You can only do that if you've got a big cast."
Reality shows have had a big influence in this regard. As "24" executive producer Howard Gordon has said, viewers who are used to seeing regular eliminations on "American Idol" and "Survivor" have come to expect the same from scripted series.
Thompson sees the culling of the herd as a good thing.
"It allows a series to lose cast members and still survive," he says, noting that "ER" has a completely different cast from when it debuted 12 years ago. "Series television does tend to wear characters out, and large ensembles allow you to replace them."
Even without deaths or other types of exits, Thompson argues that large casts can be good for a show's quality. "You've got a whole palette of people from which to draw," he says.
Some actors are actually happy to not have the whole weight of a series on their shoulders. In the early days of "Without a Trace," a weary Anthony LaPaglia said he looked forward to sharing more of the spotlight with other cast members.
On the other hand, the trend can drive good actors to leave a show. Bobby Cannavale, for example, asked to be released from his "Third Watch" contract because, the actor said, he worked 16-hour days, though his paramedic character often had little to do in an entire episode other than saying, "I'm losing his pulse."
But what's the use of debating pros and cons? Characters may be expendable these days, but, like it or not, super-sized casts are probably here to stay.
© 2006, North Jersey Media Group Inc. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.