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.”