Moving Supporting TV Characters to Lead Roles is a Delicate Balance

Earlier this year, Bob Odenkirk pulled off what many actors before him could not, transitioning his supporting character Saul Goodman from “Breaking Bad” into the lead of its spinoff show, “Better Call Saul.”

Prior to the show’s February premiere, there were doubts. Saul was a fun ancillary character, but could he carry a show on his own? Were people really interested in the backstory of a cheesy billboard attorney?

Judging by the ratings — the premiere set a record for the highest-rated scripted series premiere in cable history — the answer was a resounding yes.  But even more than eyeballs, the response from critics and “Breaking Bad” fans was overwhelmingly positive. People were interested, intrigued and, perhaps above all, relieved.

Saul isn’t the first character to do well striking out on his own; Kelsey Grammer was maybe sixth on the call sheet on “Cheers,” but as the star of “Frasier” walked away with five Emmys. Still those are the exceptions, not the rules. For every success, there’s a “Joey” or “The Ropers” to point to.

Quite often, supporting characters are the most interesting and compelling on screens large and small. They’re permitted to be a little less likable, such as recent Emmy winner Allison Janney’s selfish, recovering alcoholic on “Mom.” And they frequently breeze into a show to steal a scene before making a dramatic exit. There’s a reason that back in the day “Will & Grace” was frequently referred to as “Jack & Karen” — supporting players Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally got all the best lines. But let’s be honest; would anyone want to watch an entire show based around either of them? Often, the key to being a good supporting player is to not outstay your welcome.

The Netflix hit “Orange Is the New Black” has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to supporting characters, from Kate Mulgrew’s Red to Uzo Aduba’s “Crazy Eyes” to Laverne Cox’s Sophia. The show wisely gives every actor a moment to shine, often in a single episode dedicated to each character’s backstory, while still leaving us wanting more.

The same can be said for the casts of TV’s best comedies, from “Veep” to “Silicon Valley” to “Parks and Recreation” and “Modern Family.” Every player in the ensembles function as a part of a greater whole, and it can be difficult to point to a single standout on any of the shows. Chemistry is a tricky game, and removing one element from the group could upset the balance. (That’s a concern for most shows, but not HBO’s hit “Game of Thrones,” which boasts a supporting cast so varied and expansive that the death toll might be the highest ever for a series.)

Still, there are some TV characters that I wouldn’t object to bumping up to the lead of their own series. With “Mad Men” going off the air, I’d be happy to follow the adventures of single mother Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) as she navigates the 1970s. Similarly, now that “Justified” has wrapped its run, there’s got to be more to the story of Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). And though Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is ostensibly about its bright-eyed title character, you could give a solo show to almost any of its supporting players — Tituss Burgess, Jane Krakowski, Carol Kane — and I would binge-watch every single one of them.

Ironically, my current favorite character on television and the one I would follow anywhere now resides on a spinoff. Jonathan Banks’ sad-eyed tough guy Mike Ehrmantraut went from supporting player on “Breaking Bad” to slightly larger supporting player on “Better Call Saul.” Banks is so eminently watchable, so sympathetic as a man of few words, Vince Gilligan might want to consider expanding his franchise. “We Like Mike,” anyone?

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