An ensemble television cast can destroy a show or make it soar because when it comes to ensemble casts, viewers are rarely ambivalent. Chemistry, that meshing of distinct flavors like fine chefs create with the most unlikely ingredients, drives the ensemble cast.
But what makes one work while another fails? And what happens when the anchor of an ensemble cast leaves, as with Steve Carell in “The Office”?
Fans often view an ensemble TV show and say: “I like him, and I like her, but I don’t like them.” No matter how strong the individual actors are, the staying power of an ensemble-driven show depends on how well the characters form a unit.
While “The Office” crew has developed a strong ensemble presence, Steve Carell’s personality outpaced the cast immediately. Rainn Wilson’s Dwight Schrute holds his own with Michael Scott in the way Joe Pesci stars as the awkward muscle behind the main boss in many movies. Although Dwight will always want to be Michael, he’s no Michael.
“The Office” characters mesh, but Carell’s star took off so fast, that no matter how quirky or developed the other characters are, the spotlight always finds its way to him. It will be interesting to see how “The Office” will fare next season when Carell is gone, and that spotlight has a metaphorical scarf thrown over it. It may be a good thing unless the audience keeps looking for that single, bright light.
Charlie Sheen’s personal anchor sank “Two and a Half Men,” despite a strong ensemble cast. According to The Hollywood Reporter, in 2010, Angus T. Jones became the highest paid child actor. Jon Cryer (“Pretty in Pink”) and Courtney Thorne-Smith (“According to Jim”) have carried their weight in other TV and movie endeavors. Still, Sheen’s Charlie Harper overshadows the rest of the ensemble, much like Michael Scott. Cryer’s Alan Harper became more of a caricature as opposed to a character.
Conversely, with “The Closer,” Kyra Sedgwick’s Brenda Johnson presents a strong central character that doesn’t overtake the rest of the ensemble cast — thank you very much.
As with Sedgwick, Matthew Fox anchored “Lost,” but not in a way that diverted attention from the others. Fox’s Jack Shepherd was a thoughtful, commanding character that didn’t overpower or exclude the others.
An ensemble cast faces the “chicken or the egg” dilemma. Is the cast good because one actor unites them, or is the cast good because the sum of the parts begets a strong amalgamated entity? And, can the show survive if that strong anchor actor leaves?
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