With all six of its primary actors nominated for Emmys this year in the supporting categories, “Modern Family” not only made a bit of Emmy history, it drove home the point that we’re currently enjoying something of a golden age for ensemble television programming.
Sure, plenty of shows have showcased great groups in the past. And, yes, the placement of the four “Modern” men in the supporting class might have been strategic as much as organic. (“They’re all afraid of (Steve) Carell,” jokes “30 Rock” star Tina Fey.)
But scan the dozen shows nominated for best drama and comedy, and you’ll find the common thread of big-canvas storytelling that’s only possible when you have a large cast of fine actors.
And because telling multiple stories requires a quicker pace, a rhythm suited to today’s single-camera shooting style, these groups feel more natural as a whole than they did in the past.
“It used to be, you could always see the one or two episodes a year when shows had to make the central story about one of the less important characters,” says “Modern Family” co-creator Christopher Lloyd. “And often those wouldn’t be the best episodes because those characters didn’t stand up to carrying a show that well. The beauty of having a big cast, and actors who are as good as our actors are, is that you don’t feel like you’re ever writing around anyone’s strengths.”
“The Big Bang Theory” co-creator Bill Prady says, “We’re always looking for different groupings. Just the other day, we were saying, ‘I don’t think Leonard and Amy have spent much time together. What would that be like?’ ”
Or as Lloyd’s “Modern Family” partner Steve Levitan puts it: “When you have so many great characters, it gives you an almost infinite number of combinations. As writers, you want to see what they look like together. And I think the audience does, too.”
That process of discovery sometimes results in small roles turning into regular gigs. Melissa Rauch and Mayim Bialik began as guests on “Big Bang” and unexpectedly turned into regular characters through the strength of their work. While that’s not unprecedented, it’s more common these days as producers attempt to, as “Friday Night Lights” creator Jason Katims puts it, “build an innate power in moving between stories that aren’t necessarily linked by plot or theme, but by the desire to create a very real world.”
That goal can occasionally run contrary to networks’ and studios’ hunger to maximize a show’s profits. When renewal negotiations broke down earlier this year between “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner and AMC and Lionsgate, the main sticking point was the amount of money allotted to the show’s sizable acting ensemble. Reports had AMC wanting Weiner to cut two regulars. Weiner says the request went beyond that.
“They were asking for a reduction in employees,” Weiner says. “And I said, ‘These are not just employees. They are the show. Why would you want to change the product when it’s succeeding?’ To me, having this bed of characters — and the audience not knowing who they’re going to follow home — adds so much texture to the show. It’s irreplaceable.”
Weiner won’t have to make any radical changes to “Mad Men,” thanks to provisions in the new three-year deal he signed with AMC and Lionsgate. That’s not to say he won’t deep-six some of the show’s characters (Paging Dr. Greg!). But they’ll be removed, he says, only for “story reasons.”
Weiner will concede that juggling storylines for today’s large ensembles can be challenging.
Over at “30 Rock,” Fey cites the usual influences — “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “The Andy Griffith Show” — when talking about creating the show’s ensemble. But, referencing the number of A-list actors who have guest-starred on the show, she pulls out another, left-field touchstone.
“Probably the most influential show would be ‘The Love Boat,’ a program I watched religiously when I was growing up,” Fey says, laughing. “Think about it: ensemble show with an unwieldy amount of guest actors. Doesn’t that describe us?”
Even with big names like Matt Damon, Tom Hanks and Susan Sarandon making pilgrimages to 30 Rockefeller Plaza, Fey says the season’s best days remain those one or two occasions when the entire ensemble gathers in one place.
Fey’s former “Saturday Night Live” colleague, Amy Poehler, feels the same way about her Emmy-nommed NBC comedy, “Parks and Recreation.”
“Any time I get to do a scene in the conference room where I stand at the head of the table and try to rally the troops,” Poehler says, talking about her favorite part of the show she stars in and produces, “I get to say funny lines with the best cast in television saying different funny lines back to me. I feel very grateful when I am gathered in a room with all those people.”
And that’s how it should be, says Lloyd, who has won three Emmys in his own right and five comedy series Emmys for his work on “Frasier.” And he still remembers something Kelsey Grammer told him at the beginning of the show’s 11-season run.
“He said, ‘There are people who want to be the star of the show and be in every scene, and I’ve never understood that,’ ” Lloyd remembers. “He was thrilled to have other people getting laughs because it took the pressure off him. And he enjoyed setting up other people so they could get the laughs. He knew it’d make the show last longer.
“That’s the beauty of true ensembles. When the audience cares just as much about the secondary characters as the lead, they have more reasons to tune in. It’s the smart approach. It’s strength in numbers.”
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