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‘Fargo,’ ‘Big Little Lies,’ ‘Black Mirror’ and ‘Sherlock’ Rely on Rich Ensemble Storytelling

Limited series and television movies have significantly fewer hours to tell their stories than traditional drama or comedy series. But this doesn’t stop their creators from exploring rich worlds or crafting complex characters and sprawling ensemble casts.

“I’m always attracted to an ensemble. I just find that the story itself is best served with multiple points of views, with creating empathy — especially on ‘Fargo’ where we have characters on a collision course and we know violence is imminent,” says creator Noah Hawley. “I think it’s more interesting and more compelling for you to go into those moments of conflict a little bit torn about who you’re rooting for.”

The writing process for FX’ limited series is also complicated but enriched by its high-profile cast — Ewan McGregor, Carrie Coon and David Thewlis — and day players that Hawley says are just as important in servicing the story. “There really are no minor characters,” he says. “Sometimes my favorite things in an episode may be the local Canadian actor gas station clerk. If you cast that right and it’s written right, it’s so satisfying.”

HBO’s adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel, “Big Little Lies,” like “Fargo,” featured star-studded power behind and in front of the camera. David E. Kelley was at the helm as writer, while its cast boasted such big-screen stars as Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley.

Kelley says the key to servicing the ensemble for him was following the blueprint of the book, where there were already well-formed characters laid out in a linear fashion that needed to appear in every episode in order to inform each other as characters, as well as the underlying mystery of the murder. However, Kelley went further to flesh out the ensemble once he cast equally high-caliber actors — including Laura Dern — in the supporting roles.

“I’m always attracted to an ensemble. I just find that the story itself is best served with multiple points of views.”
Noah Hawley

“You look what you have on your bench and try and play your best athletes and get them into the game more, so you adjust your writing that way,” Kelley says of his strategy. “You do have to take a step back [because] your habitual viewer is not seeing every single episode, and if you left a character out of two in a row, they could be forgotten. So you do have to be mindful of the fact that you’re trying to cultivate an investment in your characters and you’ve got to get them front and center in order to accomplish that.”

Hawley and Kelley both had multiple episodes (10 and eight, respectively) in which to linger with their characters and create the balance of stories that moved the plot along but still got to engage audiences with nuances and asides to add extra depth. Charlie Brooker, the man behind “Black Mirror: San Junipero,” only had an hour to tell the complete story of a couple meeting, falling in love, and deciding to let their consciousnesses live together in a virtual world after their deaths, though.

“The trickiest thing was telling the story while withholding half the information about the characters and the world until around two-thirds of the way through,” Brooker says of “San Junipero’s” timeless technological twist. “But in a way those sort of restrictions are weirdly helpful. [They] remove any sense of ‘option paralysis’ at any rate. I was also fortunate that setting it in a deliberately heightened hyper-1987 meant I could jam the script with evocative music and cultural references — a shortcut to world-building.”

And Steven Moffat, who wrote “Sherlock: The Lying Detective” for PBS, had an hour and a half to tell his two-hander tale of Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and John Watson (Martin Freeman). Moffat considers both of these characters “absolutely equal” to the drama of his modern day version of the classic crime-solving mysteries, and to that end, his TV movie spent time with the characters individually, as well as together, to further showcase the “high-powered performances.”

“Sherlock Holmes is the one who does all of the crime-solving, so on the surface it looks like it’s an absolutely victory for whoever plays Sherlock, but that’s not true,” Moffat says. “Sherlock is an unbearable, cold, difficult man. You have to be able to like him; you have to be able to see him through the eyes of a critical but loyal best friend because that redeems him. The combination is what works.”

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