All In The Family

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I feel like I may have keyed into one of the things that makes a good scripted show better, or one might say, great. Part of this ‘secret’ is actually represented in the increasingly popular trend of having an expansive cast right off the hop – consider Lost’s sprawling survivors, The Office’s dysfunctional crew, Mad Men’s interweaving professional and personal lives, or the extended families of Parenthood and Modern Family. Namely, I’m talking about the ability to go outside your core cast and be comfortable with adding new members, something a LOT of shows are fa-reaked out about.

Having a large cast off the hop allows you to do many things. It extends your storylines by allowing you to create new pairings that previously haven’t interacted. It makes it easier to kill people off on an action-based show. If a cast member wants to move onto greener pastures, it’s less of an impact to the overall show. That being said, the argument could be made that having a large cast makes it hard to add new talent because you’ve already got so many characters…admittedly I still find myself losing track of the uber-generic names of the Braverman clan on Parenthood.

Lost is a great example of both sides of the coin. On the one hand, they responded to the acting talents and audience response to later-in-the-game additions Desmond, Ben, and Juliet, who by the series’ end, were some of the show’s biggest fan faves. On the flip side, they were less successful with Season 2’s ‘Tailies’ or the infamous introduction of Nikki & Paolo, two ‘extras’ that were slowly worked into the plot and quickly eviscerated thereafter.

But Lost had the advantage of a big cast to begin with, one that was quite dispensable (although generally for emotional and plot reasons) compared to most shows, so perhaps they aren’t the perfect case study. What I can do is point to two big, bad examples of the problems that occur when you don’t allow for new characters to become a regular part of the cast.

The first is Gossip Girl. After four seasons of fluff, I feel like I’ve finally singled out why the show feels so frivolous. It’s the casting. Also the sheer template of the show (issue-scheme-event-resolution) combined with the rapid-fire pace of relationships beginnings and endings, but a big chunk of it is the casting. We’ve been with our core five – Serena, Blair, Chuck, Nate, and Dan – since early days, with Lily, Rufus, Jenny, Vanessa, and Eric playing consistent supporting roles. The only change over four seasons is dropping Jenny, and phasing the supporting characters in and out to various degrees. Serena is stuck in a never-ending love cycle with Nate and Dan, while taking on occasional romantic hot flash pursuits, Vanessa has hooked up with everyone, while Blair is on the precipice of following suit.

The incestual pairings are reminiscent of The OC, another Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage-helmed program, which ultimately met its demise by trying to replace a core cast member with two half-wits – Taylor and Katelin. Gossip Girl fares slightly better than the OC in that they are willing to phase out the B-listers instead of trying to fit them in yet again, but the main issue with both shows has always been that ‘new’ characters will NEVER stick around, and that the end game in sight is likely a Blair/Chuck and Serena/Dan match-up. The closest we have is the recurring presence of Carter Baison, Georgina Sparks, and Damian Dalgard. It’d be nice to have a romantic interest actually stick around and become part of the top-billed cast, instead of guessing they’re contracted for a 6-8 episode run before being turfed. You could argue that perhaps they haven’t found an actor that piques audience interest / actor chemistry yet, but it's been four bloody years.

On the same note, I feel Parenthood, despite having a massive core cast given relatively equal weight, is struggling with adding new characters. Sarah’s love interests have been passing crazes to date, despite Lauren Graham’s incredible ability to create on-screen chemistry. Hattie’s relationship with Alex has provided a solid recurring storyline throughout the season, and given the crux of the conflict I understand the reluctance to make him a regular – especially since you want the will they / won’t they tension to exist that is somewhat ruined when a boyfriend is added to the cast – but if every romantic lead introduced for Sarah, Hattie, Drew, and Amber turns out to be a guest spot, I’ll be a little tired of it in no time. Particularly in the Sarah department.

For as much as I dislike Desperate Housewives and One Tree Hill these days, I will give them a tip of the hat in how they are good students of adding new characters. Kind of. OTH generally shoves new characters down your throat (hello Quinn and Clay), although they’re decent at rotating the b-listers in and out of play, and have cut characters that just weren’t cutting it (hello every romantic lead in Brooke’s life, prior to Julian). DH is also not doing too badly. They added ‘mystery-of-the-year’ housewife Katherine to the crew instead of turfing her the second her dark secret was revealed, and let Bree find new love in Orson and actually add him to the cast for a couple of seasons. In both cases they phased out the characters when it felt right (more or less…I would have preferred Carl to Orson last year) and literally killed others for sheer drama. They’re kind of guilty of shoving newbies down your throat (a la Vanessa Williams) but they’re also a show that isn’t afraid to give someone the boot if they’re just not working out.

The best success story? The Office. They’ve added three newbies over the years – Andy, Erin, and Gabe – plus made warehouse warrior Darryl into a regular, and it’s hard to imagine the cast without them (especially the magnificent Ed Helms, who has earned a coveted spot in the show’s twenty-second opening).

- Britt’s On

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