The plague of cast overpopulation on Heroes, Lost, and Grey's Anatomy.

What we're watching.
Sept. 21 2007 2:58 PM

Too Many Heroes

The plague of cast overpopulation.

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Of course, the networks' gold is often the viewers' lead. The Lost producers learned the creative drawbacks of mass-casting when, after one hit season with an already rambling ensemble, the producers decided to further bulk up with "the tailies," plane crash survivors who'd landed on another part of the island. Fans were dismayed, since these new additions, as well as a number of new enemy Others, kept the focus off of Sawyer, Charlie, Claire, Hurley, and Sayid, the characters they'd bonded with during Season 1. As superfluous characters began crowding the action, it was tempting to doubt the firmness of the producers' grip on their many-stranded mythology. Ultimately, nearly all of the tailies, as well as the gratuitously tacked-on (if pretty-faced) Nikki and Paulo, were offed in what amounted to a tacit apology to loyal, but unhappy viewers.

This is not to say that there are never creative imperatives for building a large, diverse cast. The motive behind some of Robert Altman's best films, including Nashville and The Player, is to simulate community in a piece of fiction. Heavily populated storytelling can expand a series' or movie's social and political sweep, as it did in the movies Babel, or Crash, in which the narratives leapt from oppression to oppression. Some subjects also just lend themselves more readily to having many players. On The Wire, the sprawling cast reveals the interlocking systems (legal, criminal, bureaucratic) of Baltimore, and the broad impact of their inadequacies. On The West Wing, the ever-expanding staff captured Aaron Sorkin's apparent belief that it takes a village to run the White House. ER, too, has used its sizable ensemble successfully, to establish a convincing sense of urban hospital chaos.

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But in each of these cases, the writers have been adroit enough to establish three-dimensionality in even the peripheral characters. In a limited number of scenes across the years, the Sopranos writers were able to make a minor player like therapist Elliott Kupferberg into an unethical louse in the guise of a caring gentleman. Six Feet Under was a model of how a show can have a loosely bound ensemble and yet devote enough script to each character.

But even HBO doesn't always get it right. The Big Love writers were so busy juggling cast members last season they failed to explore any one character in true depth. The storytelling wandered among polygamist Bill Henrickson, each of his three wives, their children and their romances, Bill's mother's woes, Bill's business problems, and the political pretenders on the Mormon compound. Rather than delving into a character for an episode or two—Alby, for instance, who is such a delightfully shifty hypocrite—the show leapt from plot to plot, with sister-wife Barb's journey out of the closet the only semi-developed psychological throughline all season.

This kind of breathless narrative flow is frustrating, as it ricochets from character to character without viewers getting attached to any one of them. Television is the one visual medium that, with the luxury of time, has the potential to gradually uncover many facets of character. Watching Tony Soprano, Gregory House, and Andy Sipowicz for years, we've known them more intimately than we know most movie characters—and maybe even some of our own friends. But dramas with an excessive number of regular characters make me yearn for some quality time with a hero or two or three. Yeah, we all know people who, like these overpopulated shows, have a fear of commitment and spread themselves too thin. And in the long run, spending time with them is not very fulfilling.

Matthew Gilbert is the TV critic for the Boston Globe.

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