New characters invigorate shows while reflecting reality

After season one of “Justified” ended with something of an uneasy truce between U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and serial miscreant Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), series creator Graham Yost realized that Raylan would need a new antagonist for season two. So he visited rural Kentucky, where the show is set, and researched the area’s feud culture.

“We met a lot of people and heard a lot of stories,” Yost recalls. “We heard about an infamous yet beloved criminal matriarch named Mags Bailey. I thought it was cool to have a criminal matriarch.”

And thus was born Mags Bennett (“unrelated, except for the name Mags,” Yost points out), who, as played by Margo Martindale, became one of the most indelible characters on television this past season. Mags, warm and earthy one moment and icily vengeful the next (or even simultaneously), and her three sons were involved in crimes small and large, from peddling marijuana to murder. One son, Dickie (Jeremy Davies), a shoot-first-and-never-really-bother-to-ask-questions-later hayseed, had a long-simmering hatred for Raylan sparked by a boyhood altercation.

“The reality is, you write and cast it, and if the stars align, you get Margo and Jeremy,” Yost says. “Once we saw these people in play, that helped shift things. We knew where we wanted to go to the end of the season. When you see those wonderful performances, it nudges you in that direction — let’s have more of Mags and get deeper into Dickie. Dickie’s Fredo from ‘The Godfather,’ with a Kentucky spin. They’re not that smart but want respect.” Some of the principal characters from season one ceded screen time to make more room for the Bennetts.

Dramas can either embrace their core cast or evolve, dropping some characters and adding new ones to add flavors to their formula. Numerous acclaimed series have opted for the trickier second route: “Friday Night Lights,” “House,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and the “CSI” procedurals have spread their casting nets wider to generally positive results.

“There are ups and downs in adding and subtracting characters,” Yost says. “The con is you can fall in love with these people, and they’re only one season and it feels like that’s too bad. On the other hand, it brings an urgency and preciousness to their appearances.”

Older, more established dramas decide to shake things up as well, such as “House,” which in its fourth season opted to surround Hugh Laurie’s acerbic doctor with new colleagues.

“It starts with our (writers’) own curiosity,” says executive producer Katie Jacobs. “When the audience says, ‘We’re bored; we need a new character,’ you’re too late.

“It felt to us like it would be a great opportunity to have House interact with new doctors. Our original three — if they’ve been with him for three years, they’ll invariably be less shocked. The opportunities for him to react to different personalities and them react to him got us jazzed. We didn’t know who would stay and leave. We had deals with all the actors and had to figure out who, chemistry-wise and narratively, gave you the most opportunity to write for.” Eight actors were hired and culled by House in a “Survivor”-like fashion; of them, Olivia Wilde’s Thirteen and Peter Jacobson’s Dr. Taub endured to the past season, the show’s seventh.

Another character, Amber Tamblyn’s Martha Masters, was added in season seven. Jacobs says that series creator David Shore “had this wonderful idea of a medical student with a strong moral center” who would get into intense philosophical debates with Laurie’s ends-justify-the-means House.

Sometimes, casts are shaken up to maintain a show’s logic, such as with “Friday Night Lights,” whose characters couldn’t remain in high school forever.

“That was very difficult and painful to face,” admits exec producer Jason Katims. “Up until season three, we had been kind of oblique about who was a sophomore and took some poetic license to keep characters around. In the third season, we realized we had to deal with this, and when we decided to make it about graduation, with so many of our characters moving on to other places, creatively that made that season strong.

“Really, it was somewhat of a risky move; on the other hand, we had no choice,” he says. “The one thing that show seemed to have going for it was that it felt so real. So you had to say these people are going to graduate, but it was hard to make that change.”

Katims and company again rebooted the show in season four by moving Kyle Chandler’s Eric Taylor to the school on the poorer side of Dillon, Texas.

“Meeting people on the other side of town made sense and answered the question of why we hadn’t seen them before,” Katims says. “The cast of new people would seem fresh and wouldn’t have be compared to the leaving characters. That transition from season three to four is the boldest thing I’ve been a part of on a show. In finding the new actors, we did it similarly to how you approach a pilot, with more intensive auditioning.

“In making these sort of bold moves, unexpected things came about and happened with the new cast members that were surprising in a good way,” he adds. “It was a very intimidating situation for them to walk into this, and they did an amazing job of stepping up and making their characters specific and very fresh.”

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