For all the viewers of “Mad Men” who wonder why their favorite character wasn’t featured prominently in an episode, creator-exec producer Matthew Weiner can only say, consider the show like an orchestra.
“You don’t want too much drum, and you don’t want too much flute,” says Weiner, who looks at his cast of characters in terms of overall storylines, not solos. “You want to make it a symphony.”
Ideally, a big-cast series such as “Game of Thrones,” “Parenthood” or “Downton Abbey” develops its following because no matter where the narrative is aimed, the character in its sights is somebody auds find interesting. How do showrunners keep the whole thing balanced, then, without it feeling like a time card is being punched for each actor and actress?
“Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes gives the real estate answer: location, location, location. He says an office, hospital or a country manor provides an automatic excuse for everyone to be in the same place.
“So you can have characters who are perhaps not in the forefront that week, but you bring them into group scenes because it’s natural, and creates a sense that everyone’s fizzing along,” says Fellowes. “I think it’s harder when you’re doing something like a ‘Desperate Housewives,’ where you need a narrative reason to see each character because they’re in different houses.”
At “Mad Men,” Weiner is dead set on keeping viewers on their toes about where stories are going — which for the writers dictates character focus — even if it means inciting absence pains.
“When Joan (Christina Hendricks) quit the agency (in the middle of season three), I knew she was going to be brought back at the end of the season for this triumphant moment when they were going to need her to help move the new agency,” says Weiner. “And we had great scenes in between, like her working at a department store. The audience missed her. I like that. It means they’re invested.”
“Mad Men” actor Vincent Kartheiser has had a couple of dramatically strong Pete Campbell episodes this year, but he likes that it usually means he lays low for an episode or two afterward, as a form of breathing room.
“You need to give Pete time to do recovery on his own, and I respect that Matt doesn’t just write me in after a big episode and pretend nothing happened,” says Kartheiser. “Plus, it allows me to put all my work into that big episode, burn myself out, then know that I don’t have to come back as big next week.”
Of course, Jon Hamm is always there as anchoring protagonist Don Draper, and if “Mad Men” hadn’t been cast so strongly, it might have been even more Don-centric. On “Downton,” however, Fellowes is proud of his willfully democratic storytelling.
“One of the things we’ve done right is that we don’t deal more seriously with the family than we do with the servants, or the other way around,” says Fellowes. “Like a lot of shows — ‘ER,’ ‘The West Wing’ — you can pick your own favorites, because you know they will be served up to you on a reasonably regular basis. I think that’s enjoyable.”
He doesn’t rely on elaborate charts or index cards, either, to keep track of who’s gotten how much play.
“As the series progresses, you have a sense of justice that you must do more with this person or that person,” Fellowes says. “You need to check that in the Rolodex of your brain. I like all my characters, so that’s not hard!”
Then there are the external realities, which for Weiner has included sharing thesps with other series (such as “Community” star Alison Brie, who doubles as Pete Campbell’s wife), actors’ private lives (January Jones’ pregnancy this past year, which changed the nature of her appearances), and simply having a limited budget.
“The show costs too much money just to do a scene so somebody’s in an episode,” Weiner says.
But that wouldn’t satisfy his storytelling instincts, anyway. Weiner recalls early on having to convince AMC why Campbell was absent from the second episode ever of “Mad Men” after he’d been featured heavily in the pilot as someone who cheated on his bride with Elisabeth Moss’ character, Peggy.
“I said, ‘I don’t have the money or the time to shoot him on his honeymoon, so they will miss him for a week, and when he comes back next week, I have this great storyline because Peggy missed him also.’
“It’s that kind of ‘Who’s showing up every week?’ reality I’m always thinking about. Who are we going home with? What can I do not to do the episode I’ve done before?”