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Supporting Actors Take Center Stage in ‘Better Call Saul,’ ‘Orange Is the New Black’

When HBO’s “The Leftovers” changed directions, both literally and metaphysically, for season two, co-creator and showrunner Damon Lindelof wanted to make sure that characters not directly associated with new storyline did not seem, well, left over. So he gave them their own opportunities. Says actress Amy Brenneman, “He really loved the two standalone episodes from season one with Carrie Coon and Christopher Eccleston — and so did the audience.”

Brenneman’s Laurie Garvey did not join her daughter and husband on their pilgrimage from fictional cities Mapleton, N.Y., to Jarden, Texas. Instead, she ended up carrying most of the storyline of an episode that showed her character attempting to publish a book about her time in the cult, the Guilty Remnant. The result was a meeting with potential publishers that didn’t go well for Laurie, but offered a confrontation scene that was dramatically and viscerally appealing.

Fans of Lindelof’s work on “Lost” can testify to his knack for centering an episode around a single character. It’s a longtime tradition in series, but is getting some new twists as the definition of a supporting cast evolves; showrunners have adopted an Oprah Winfrey-way of handling episodes: Everybody gets a subplot!

“I find it to be, for myself, informative how each character relates to one another and you get a better insight to the humanity of those characters outside of the walls of the prison,” says “Orange Is the New Black’s” Uzo Aduba. The actress has received two Emmys for her work on the Netflix dramedy about female inmates, a show that relies heavily on characters’ backstories.
The device is effective for the series’ creatives and for the audiences, who have grown attached to supporting characters.

“It just feels like a natural progression to me. I do love the intimacy of those standalone episodes.”

“There are some episodes where I don’t have much to do or I’m not in it,” notes Melissa McBride of “The Walking Dead,” who was the center of a key episode this season. “It doesn’t feel like a breakout. It just feels like a natural progression to me. I do love the intimacy of those standalone episodes.”

Season two of “Better Call Saul” saw Rhea Seehorn’s Kim spending a chunk of an episode on various phone calls as she attempted to round up new clients for herself and her law firm. Seehorn said it was like she had a “pit crew” for the amount of below-the-line talent helping her. “It’s multiple costumes in multiple locations doing all the phone calls almost on loop so that they have the option of extracting which calls happen where — and we did it all in one day,” Seehorn says. “I wrote out a whole second script of the other side of the phone call for every phone call I made. It makes the people feel real. It makes the difference between the cold call versus your college friend’s roommate’s mom.”

These scenes also give the audience a chance to learn more about backstories. An episode in the first season of USA’s “Mr. Robot” saw Portia Doubleday’s Angela, the childhood best friend of lead Rami Malek’s Elliot, square off with the corporate executive responsible for covering up the disaster that led to her mother’s death.

“Throughout the season, you slowly see Angela becoming compromised, she wants to be in a position of power where she can make changes that she believes in,” Doubleday says. “And that goes along with Elliot’s storyline as well. [Creator] Sam Esmail told me that what they would think about as childhood, what they really wanted, was to change the corporate world and they just go about it in completely different worlds.”

As Allison Williams of HBO’s “Girls” explains, the opportunity to drive the action comes down to trust. “It’s a really rare thing in television, and even in film, because typically you have to color an episode with a bunch of interesting people,” says Williams, who headlined an acclaimed episode of “Girls” this year titled “The Panic In Central Park.” “But when someone’s been with a show this long, you can depend on one person. It also just means that they believe you won’t be a giant pain in the ass to work with for multiple days at a time. And, even though you’ve been working on many, many episodes leading up to it, it means you’ve done your homework and be prepared because things move quickly and there’s not a lot of time for dissecting on the day.”

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