Who deserves Emmy’s vote in ensemble casts?

Favorite shows overflow with talented actors

What are indecisive Emmy voters supposed to do when their favorite show bubbles over with talented series regulars?

Actors in ensemble series dominate the tube these days, from drama (“Friday Night Lights,” “Lost,” “The Sopranos,” “The Wire”) to half-hour comedy (“The Office,” “30 Rock”), making it harder than ever for a cast member submitting himself or herself for consideration to stand out come award nomination time.

“Our cast is an embarrassment of riches,” says Jason Katims, executive producer of NBC’s acclaimed high school football drama “Friday Night Lights,” where Kyle Chandler’s Coach Taylor may be an obvious lead actor candidate, but nine other cast members have gotten plenty of screen time, including Zach Gilford and Scott Porter. “Is there a worry that voting will get divided because there’s so many people? I don’t know. It’s a fine line between lead and supporting actors.”

In today’s big-tent approach to ensemble series, the focus of episodes tends to revolve among the players, so a significant character in the overall fabric of the story may have only a few minutes of face time one week, then become the engine of the plot the following week. And suddenly that episode — or a mini-storyline — can become the basis for an Emmy run. “Lost” actor Naveen Andrews garnered an Emmy nom in 2005 for “Lost” but only had one Sayid-centered flashback episode that season.

Actor William Fichtner, who joined the large cast of Fox’s “Prison Break” in its most recent season as ruthless FBI agent Alexander Mahone, says the producers eventually made much more of his character than he initially expected they would.

“I’ve never thought of myself as anything more than part of the group,” says Fichtner. “If I was to think of it in terms of supporting or lead, then it becomes a means to an end. I think you get away from what it’s all about as soon as you do that. If I was in nine out of 10 scenes every episode for all 22 of next season, I’d still think of myself as part of the group.”

NBC’s freshman series “Heroes” has a dozen-and-counting cast roster, including veteran actor Jack Coleman as cloak-and-dagger guy Mr. Bennet. Coleman started as a guest star, lurking in the background, but was made a series regular midway through the first season, when his character’s once-sinister vibe took on complex emotional shadings.

“There’s a big difference between supporting and secondary, and I don’t think anybody is secondary,” says Coleman, who took center stage in the flashback episode “Company Man.” “The reality is it would be completely foolhardy for any of us to be submitted as lead actors. There’s a reason why everybody has been put on contract, because every one of these characters is important.”

What about the potential for weird vibes when one person gets nominated over his or her castmates? The first breakout star for “Heroes” has been Masi Oka, who plays emboldened Japanese office worker Hiro Nakamura. Oka was the only cast member to get a Golden Globe nod earlier this year, and, says Coleman, “We were all thrilled for him. If you’ve been in the business for more than 15 minutes, you understand that his nomination was hugely important to all of us, because the show is being acknowledged. Come back in year five, when he’s had 10 of these nominations and nobody’s had any, and you may find some resentment, but at this point, absolutely not.”

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