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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Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to expand.

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___."

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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.

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.

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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