Can an embarrassment of riches be a problem for a showrunner with a deep ensemble cast?
When the supporting actors of many shows — think Margo Martindale and Walton Goggins of FX’s “Justified,” Andre Braugher of TNT’s “Men of a Certain Age,” Jane Lynch of Fox’s “Glee” and most of the cast of “The Good Wife” — have characters so deftly written and portrayed that they could head up their own series, can that positive also create headaches?
“I can only imagine how hard it must be for a showrunner to sit down at an all-your-can-eat buffet with a bunch of good food and ask, ‘What do you eat first?’ ” says Goggins, nominated for playing “Justified’s” villainous Boyd Crowder. “Those decisions can’t be easy, but there has to be a balance to a good meal, and as an actor, you’re patient and trust they’ll be eating your food soon.”
Lynch, who won an Emmy last year and is nominated again for her portrayal of Sue Sylvester on “Glee,” also employs a food metaphor.
“The nature of ensemble comedies is that the light is on you a little bit, and then it’s on me and then it’s on someone else,” she says. “I don’t have any problem with that. The delicious pieces we do get to gnaw on are worth it. A little bit of Sue Sylvester goes a long way.”
Robert King, co-creator of “The Good Wife” with his wife, Michelle, says it’s fun to create storylines accommodating multiple characters.
“I’m coming from the world of features, where plot is a furnace you keep feeding,” he says. “TV allows you to stretch your muscles and have fun with the oddities and quirks of characters in a way that’s not plot-dependent. To have someone interesting and strange — not driven to any end — is just fun. It’s entertaining to see interesting characters bump into each other.”
On the other hand, “Justified” creator Graham Yost admits some characters can get lost in the shuffle.
“We got to know some characters better, but not a huge amount better,” he says. “The big wild card was Mags (Bennett, played by Emmy-nominated Martindale). When we were breaking season three, we didn’t know how much we were going to be featuring Mags. We didn’t know we were going to get lighting in a bottle.”
“When I was hired, I thought I’d be in maybe five episodes,” Martindale recalls. “I was flying by the seat of my pants. I didn’t know where I was going with this. I was cornering writers on the set and asking if the backstory I had filled in for Mags worked for them.”
Martindale went from five episodes to practically dominating “Justified’s” second season. Likewise, Goggins’ character was supposed to have been killed in the pilot, but his performance convinced Yost that Boyd should survive.
“Glee” creator Ryan Murphy agrees with Yost on the hardship of serving a large cast.
“It’s a very difficult show. There’s 14 of those kids,” he says. “The way I look at it, there are three leads: Jane, Matt (Morrison) and Lea (Michele). So when coming up with stories, you try to go through the prism of those three and hopefully, we’re doing better this year servicing more of the kids. It goes in waves in a weird way. It’s hard on me because I love all those actors and feel an obligation to showcase their talents.”
Emmy winner Braugher, up for his second nom as Owen on “Men of a Certain Age,” believes the size of an ensemble cast determines how well a show’s writers can service each of them.
“The more characters you have, the harder it becomes,” he says. “It’s easy to juggle three balls, but once you get four or five, it’s harder to create compelling storylines for that many characters. Any of our characters could be the lead of a piece. Ray (Romano, series creator and star) did a good juggling act making sure all three friends got equally compelling storylines.”
Adds Goggins: “I’ve always fancied myself an actor who services the story more than my ego. A story has flow, and that flow will eventually come back to you. I’m OK with that.”
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