They say two’s company, three’s a crowd and eighteen’s a DMV line. But there’s no denying that the ensemble cast has been a crucial part of the television furniture since the dawn of the format. Since its conception, TV has given us some of our greatest friends: a group of ragtag buddies in a bar (Cheers); a group of snarky, fierce friends trying to protect the world from supernatural danger (Buffy the Vampire Slayer); four women trying to navigate life and relationships in the big city (Sex and the City). In fact, the ensemble cast is the most concise summary of television I can imagine.
Television is about community, and it’s incredibly difficult to think of even one show that doesn’t have at least three key characters at the heart of the story.
It should come as no surprise that the ensemble cast as we know it has its roots in early cinema (it actually has its roots in theatre, but that’s too high-brow for me to fathom). D.W. Griffith’s 1916 silent epic Intolerance can be viewed as the earliest prototype of modern television writing, offering audiences four plotlines and a sprawling cast of characters, each with individual arcs.
It’s hard to ignore the lasting influence of Griffith’s storytelling choices, especially in an age of shows like Arrested Development and Game of Thrones, both of which feature an incredibly sprawling cast and multiple story strands.
So why is an ensemble cast so popular?
Well, it provides audiences with a number of differing characters and storylines, guaranteeing at least one place of interest for everyone. Basically, everyone loved Joey’s stories in Friends but how many people thought Ross had the best storylines? Very few people. Maybe Schwimmer.
ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT — Ensemble as Trait
Examples: Friends; Game of Thrones; The Simpsons
Arrested Development has been rightly hailed as one of the most intelligent shows ever to grace the magic box. So dense with jokes, it’s one of the few sitcoms that continues to hold new laughs even on sixteenth rewatch (the other big three: Community, 30 Rock and early Simpsons). Arrested also has one of the biggest casts assembled on comedy television, with nine lead actors — all of whom get an important role to play in just about every episode. That is an unimaginable amount of story in 20 minutes, let alone a season.
But the reason the ensemble works in this show is down to the shared traits of the characters.
The Bluth family are materialistic, selfish and manipulative. It’s this bond that connects all of them — from cruel matriarch Lucille to decent son George Michael — and unites the ensemble. Even our protagonist Michael Bluth (who considers himself to be the best of them all) is ultimately selfish and just as bad as the rest of the clan.
The great thing about the ‘trait’ ensemble is that it can sprawl as far as you want.
The Simpsons has an unbelievable amount of side characters, but our core ensemble (The Simpsons) are ultimately decent, good-natured people. Their function is identical, their style is unique. It’s worth noting there aren’t many dramas like this. Sitcoms function on character, while Dramas typically move on plot.
Take a look at the gang on Seinfeld: they’re petty, mean people. They obsess over minutiae that really doesn’t matter. The women in Sex and the City are unified by their search to have it all. What is Frasier but a clash of social classes?
The ‘trait’ ensemble is almost always thematic — Game of Thrones is a battle for power amongst a number of differing factions; Breaking Bad’s characters all fought for some kind of control; the Friends just wanted to be good people and survive in the city — but when it works, it resonates strongly.
THE WEST WING — Ensemble as Job
Examples: 30 Rock; Mad Men; The Office
Statistically, workplace shows are the most common television pitches. I have nothing to back that up, but since facts are a thing of the past, it’s true! Workplace shows provide the writer with an excellent excuse for having these characters hanging out from episode to episode. I mean, look at the number of police procedurals available on TV. It’s insane. There can’t possibly be that much crime in New York, right? It’s a wonder the taxis don’t fall to pieces.
Anyway, The West Wing is one of the most beloved workplace ensembles ever assembled on television.C.J., Bartlet, and the gang gave a face to a world that the audience at large had never seen — the inner workings of the White House. So it goes with the ‘work ensemble’.
Ensembles like these provide an insight into a particular workplace (say, the Parks & Recreation department; NewsRadio; the hallowed halls of 30 Rock) the ordinary audience member would never think twice about, and gives these places a face.
In fact, a number of faces are united by a common goal — to run a local government department; to bring people news; to make a TV show. Because of the unique workplace, we get an ensemble unlike any other on television; and it’s all because these characters belong to this world.
But it’s not just comedies.
Take a look at the seemingly endless cast lists of ER; NCIS: Place Name; CSI: Anywhere; Law & Order: Home Edition; any two/three-lettered drama and/or just about any title with a colon. The surefire results of the workplace ensemble can be seen in the endless number of stories that can only be set in a particular workplace.
Leslie Knope’s constant efforts to build a park would be utterly useless in Don Draper’s life; The storylines of Scandal would be completely inappropriate in The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
The true blessing of the workplace show is the promise of infinite, unique storylines that could only happen in this workplace, with these unique characters.
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK — Ensemble as Location
Examples: Lost; Gilligan’s Island; Westworld
In terms of drama, one ensemble ‘type’ triumphs over all others. Much like workplace ensembles, the location ensemble has the potential to last for years, purely because of the infinite choices open to the writers. Characters can wander in and out, new businesses can start up or leave, new relationships can blossom or disintegrate. The world is open to anything. This is why shows like Desperate Housewives or even Westworld have the potential for so much gas in the tank — a location allows an ensemble to build around a common area, but also leaves options open for things to change naturally. Many long-running dramas were location-based ensembles (Prison Break; The O.C.; Dallas; Gotham).
But let’s look at one of Netflix’s biggest hits.
The prison location of Orange is the New Black is what gives the show longevity. Jails aren’t going anywhere, they’ve been around for centuries and until we start building them out of Lego as a cost-cutting option, will last a lot longer. A prison setting allows for a revolving door of inmates, not to mention new prison guards and officials.
Anything can happen, as long as it happens within the walls of this prison.
Orange is about a group of institutionalized characters trying to survive; but is that not also the basic plot of Lost or Gilligan’s Island? A group of seemingly unconnected people trapped on an island united in their attempts to get off it? Sure! Whereas characters in The Office are limited to key roles (can you imagine Dwight as a politician that works in a paper sales office? That makes no sense!), location ensembles allow for any number of different jobs and character types as long as they remain within the confines of the location. For Dramas, typically there will also be a serialized goal for the characters to pursue/prevent.
The latest HBO hit, Westworld, offers viewers a number of interesting characters — the confused androids; the mad creator; the technicians; the executives; the visitors; the investors. But at the heart of this is Westworld itself. The location of a Western-styled theme park gives internal logic to these characters. As does Cheers (where everybody knows your name), which welcomes anybody to get a drink — allowing the show to last for years without any issue whatsoever.
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
In my eyes, the ensemble cast is television. In the history of TV, I can’t think of a single show that does not have an ensemble. Louie, maybe, or The Twilight Zone, but they don’t back up my argument and I’m a hack writer, so consider them dismissed. The point is that most TV shows depend upon an ensemble. It’s one of the most concrete ways to guarantee the longevity of your show because it means something.
Television is community. And that may be a community of similar minds or co-workers or just neighbors, but community is the lynchpin of civilization. And so it is on television.
“And that’s why… you always leave a note!”