×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

From ‘This Is Us’ to ‘The Good Fight,’ Ensembles Serve Dramatic Storytelling

As the amount of scripted television continues to grow, a number of drama series are embracing larger casts to expand their storytelling potential.

“I prefer ensembles, because that’s the only way you can tell a real story,” says “The Chi” executive producer Lena Waithe. “To me, the really good shows are about relationships [rather than] just one protagonist.”

The Chi” tells interweaving stories about a number of residents of the South Side of Chicago. The first season focused heavily on how the effects of gun violence rippled across the community, while the second season digs deeper into individual characters’ struggles as the older ones attempt to make names for themselves in their respective lines of business, while younger ones are tempted by new paths of their own.

“What’s so great about ‘The Chi’ is you’re going to get a very different vibe with [each character] and they each say something different about the black experience,” Waithe says. “To me, it’s hard to tell the story without it being an ensemble because [the experience] is not a monolith. We’re not all good, we’re not all bad, we all have different things we’re working through.”

Balancing multiple points of views in one cohesive narrative is not necessarily an easy feat, though. “The Good Fight” co-creators and showrunners Michelle King and Robert King prefer to involve their whole legal ensemble, rather than silo characters for “big chunks of time,” as Michelle King puts it. However, because the third season has seen some characters drift away from the law firm that binds them, they have added soliloquies to each episode, allowing characters moments to reflect.

Further complicating things can be cast expansions. In the third season of “The Good Fight,” for example, Michael Sheen notably joined the already rich ensemble, shaking things up for the long-term characters, as well as the audience.

“We knew he would be a big presence, and the original idea was to have him be an antagonist,” says executive producer Robert King. “We have a great cast, but they’re all protagonists. You’re looking for [someone] who can provoke all the characters.”

On “This Is Us,” co-showrunners Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger have to service not only a large family in the Pearson clan, but also storylines that span across decades and require some actors to play versions of their characters at different ages and other actors to portray the same characters at different times.

“Early on we tried to give everyone a big story in each episode,” Aptaker says. “We realized that because these episodes are so short and tend to get overstuffed, we tend to do best when we move the spotlight around to different characters.” And when “we saw people were responding, we felt confident in taking those risks,” he adds.

However, according to his fellow co-showrunner, the large cast has helped guide how far certain stories could go, too.

“We’re really taking our cue as they grow up before our eyes,” Berger says of the young actors who play the Pearson children. “It’s exciting, because we can tell stories that apply to 12- and 13-year-olds in a way we couldn’t before. We’re growing with them story-wise as they progress with age.”

From a practical standpoint, having a big cast can be a selling point to both the writers’ room and the actors signing on to a show.

“We shoot eight days [per episode],” says “A Million Little Things” executive producer D.J. Nash. But, because there are so many people in play, any one actor on the show is never shooting for all eight of those days. “For an actor, you’re allowed to have a life. For me, I know I have an incredible bullpen. I can go to anyone, and they’re great.”

Nash credits the Broadway smash “Hamilton” with helping him find the right balance in telling the story of a group of friends who band together after they lose someone to suicide, learning long-buried secrets about that man and each other in the process.

“Lin-Manuel [Miranda] did such an amazing job at dove-tailing these different storylines and different themes,” Nash says. “In that way, I don’t mind that more than one character is dealing with the same thematic issue. It happens in life; it feels true to what’s going on.”

In order to honor his real-life friend who inspired the show, Nash wanted the character of Jon (Ron Livingston) to be on the top of the call sheet. However, everyone else who follows is listed alphabetically, which he feels sends “a message that we are a true ensemble. Everybody is important.”

There can be too much of a good thing with casts this stacked, though, such as “figuring out how to weave in all the material you want to give all these great actors,” Berger says.

On “This Is Us,” it was a juggling act to find the “perfect spot” to do a Beth-centric episode, which they wanted to do from the beginning of the show but just got to in Season 3, for example. “[The question is always] what is the moment to showcase this person in the way we want to?” Berger says.

Often, a close collaboration with their actors becomes essential in finding and continuing to service the characters, as well as to maintain the balance of storytelling for all pieces of the cast puzzle.

“I think the actors have made us look better than we actually are,” Waithe says. “They often inform the characters. They can make a bad line feel authentic, honest and grounded. The ensemble cast is a big reason of why we get a lot of love. They’re able to take a lot of our intentions and make it hit home.”

More TV

  • Al Burton

    Al Burton, 'Jeffersons' and 'Diff’rent Strokes' Producer, Dies at 91

    Television producer and executive Al Burton, known for his work on “The Jeffersons” and “Diff’rent Strokes,” died Tuesday at his home in San Mateo, California. He was 91. Burton leaves behind a six-decade legacy of hit television shows that also included “One Day at a Time,” “Silver Spoons,” “Square Pegs” and “Facts of Life.” However, long [...]

  • Dwyane Wade Sets Multi-Year Development Deal

    Dwyane Wade Sets Multi-Year Development Deal at WarnerMedia

    Dwayne Wade is bouncing his way into WarnerMedia’s court. The retired NBA All Star has signed a multi-faceted, multi-year deal with the company, including a development deal via his 59th & Prairie Entertainment production banner. Part of the deal sees Wade sign on as a commentator at Turner Sports. He is set to make appearances [...]

  • Katie Couric Sheryl Sandberg

    Katie Couric Steamrolls Sheryl Sandberg in Roving Vanity Fair Summit Interview

    Sending a jolt through a luxurious and excessively polite afternoon in Beverly Hills, veteran journalist Katie Couric delivered a relentless series of hardball questions to Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg on Tuesday. Speaking in conversation at the sixth annual Vanity Fair New Establishment summit at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Couric’s [...]

  • EVIL is a psychological mystery that

    CBS Renews 'Evil,' Orders Full Seasons of Four Other Freshman Shows

    CBS is doubling down on all its new shows. The network has renewed “Evil” for a second season, and handed out full-season orders to its other four freshman series, namely “All Rise,” “Carol’s Second Act,” “The Unicorn,” and “Bob Hearts Abishola.” “Evil” is set to conclude its 13-episode first season (creators Michelle and Robert King [...]

  • Jamie Lee Curtis

    Jamie Lee Curtis to Produce Military Drama With Put Pilot Order at Fox

    Jamie Lee Curtis is teaming up with April Fitzsimmons and Berlanti Productions for a drama project that has received a put pilot order at Fox. Titled “Chain of Command,” the one-hour project follows a young Air Force investigator with radical crime-solving methodology who returns to her hometown to join a military task force that doesn’t [...]

  • Michael MannLACMA: Art and Film Gala,

    TV News Roundup: Michael Mann to Direct and Executive Produce HBO Max's 'Tokyo Vice'

    In today’s TV news roundup, HBO Max names MIchael Mann as a director and executive producer of “Tokyo Vice” and Chip and Joanna Gaines announce the first original series coming to the couple’s Magnolia Network. DATES Netflix announced a six-episode docuseries centered on Nasty Cherry, the latest all-female group signed to Charli XCX’s label will [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content