Too Many Heroes
The plague of cast overpopulation.
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In this week's TV Guide, you'll find a cast photo from the NBC series Heroes. It's a wide-angle shot. There are 10 characters in the picture—11 if you count Ali Larter's alternate personality, Jessica, she of the Snidely Whiplash glint. An inset photo reveals still two more Heroes faces, "among the many new additions to the cast this fall." You almost want to write up name tags: "Hello! I Am ____ and My Power Is___."
This season of Heroes looks to be even more overpopulated than the last, expanding from a rabble to a veritable global riot of Dubiously Gifted Ones. A midseason, six-episode miniseries, Heroes: Origins, will only compound the problem: One new hero will be introduced in each hour, and viewers will vote, American Idol-style, to put one of them in the cast of the regular series. Last season, there were already so many characters on the show by May that the denouement was a denouemess—you needed superpowers of your own to keep track of the rules governing each magical ability and the role it played in the averted cataclysm. Heroes creator Tim Kring and his writers had spun out so many subplots around all these characters that they couldn't weave them into a satisfying whole.
Heroes has become a character factory, and it's not alone. Grey's Anatomy now has 11 regular characters. So does ABC's Brothers & Sisters. Like so many lamentable practices in TV today, mass-casting—using lots of actors to draw lots of viewers—traces its root to reality television. And as usual, Survivor was the pioneer. Survivor showed producers and networks that cramming a series with actors of various ages, colors, personalities, and body types could increase the odds of attracting a broader, bigger, and potentially even international audience. As NBC's new flagship scripted series, meant to eclipse the dying Law & Order franchise and signal the network's way forward, Heroes is throwing a net wide in what looks like a flagrant viewer grab. But it just might end up losing viewers in the process.
It's easy to see the appeal of a populous cast to the suits at the networks. With mass-casting, there are more potential "breakout" actors at hand—Heroes, for instance, has the hottie Hayden Panettiere, the meany Zachary Quinto, and the nerdy Masi Oka. Network publicists can handily promote these actors to different viewing niches, from teenage girls to sci-fi heads. If you don't like Hugh Laurie, you're not going to watch House; if you don't like Adrian Pasdar, or Milo Ventimiglia, or Greg Grunberg, you might still hook into Heroes. Also, the bigger the cast, the more secure the network: No one star can jeopardize a hit show with a tough contract negotiation.
Mass-casting is also a great enabler when it comes to the networks' addiction to Sweeps "events." It used to be that you'd draw viewers during Sweeps with a Robert Halmi-produced miniseries—a Gulliver's Travels, or The Odyssey.But the days of those bloated sagas officially ended after NBC's excruciating, and ignored, The 10th Kingdom in 2000. We're now in the post-Halmi era, and killing off characters has filled the "event" gap. You can see Fox straining for House-related events after three seasons—how many overdoses, ex-lovers, and staff crises can one man handle? But shows with massive casts can give their writers licenseto kill—or, as they say so poetically on reality TV, "eliminate"—characters without damaging the show's DNA. In the last few seasons, Lost, 24, The Sopranos, Desperate Housewives, and Heroes have all goosed their ratings and left fans buzzing by rubbing out a character or two.
Matthew Gilbert is the TV critic for the Boston Globe.
Illustration by Deanna Staffo.