Arts Issue: Great writing outweighs celebrity overload

courtesy of AMC
courtesy of AMC

Ensemble casts have always been a part of the lives of TV viewers, but recently this trend has multiplied and the results are spectacular. Ensemble shows like “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead” are massive hits with audiences.

Many of these ensemble series have huge casts, turning some viewers away since they find it difficult to keep track of who’s who. Yet other viewers would argue that ensemble casts only increase a show’s worth. The potential to weave a narrative around the multitude of characters and the standout performances they give are what pushes these shows from good to great.

“Thrones” and “Dead” have a fair amount of celebrities between them — Peter Dinklage and Sean Bean, and Andrew Lincoln and Scott Wilson, respectively. Yet these actors’ celebrity status does not overshadow the story.

On the other hand, some of these actors were unknown before working on “Thrones” and “Dead.” The shows have made them bigger celebrities through critical acclaim for their performances, but their newfound fame still has not hurt the show’s purpose of giving its audience interesting stories.

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The current season of “Dead” has employed character arcs more meaningfully than in years past. The second half of the season explored many of the characters’ personalities in-depth, with many episodes focusing only on a few of the characters. On occasion this strategy required the writers to leave characters like Lincoln’s Rick out for consecutive episodes in order to spread the screen time between everyone in the cast and not just the celebrities.

By breaking up into these substories, everyone in the cast is given a character spotlight to show where each character is mentally. The writing became better, since the scenes focused on specific characters and what was at stake for each of them. When under the right direction, both celebrities and newcomers can display grand character arcs.

With a show like “Thrones,” which has over a dozen main characters, it can be difficult to give everyone a scene in each episode. Yet the writers smartly build their plot around the characters, exploring their interactions and the resulting consequences — no character is complete without his adversaries and allies.

In the “Thrones” season two episode “Blackwater,” Tyrion (Dinklage) berates Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) for not being the king his soldiers need. Dinklage is the celebrity and he commands the scene, yet the action that Joffrey decides to take in that scene sets off a whole new storyline for many characters. The narrative never feels static because each character’s actions constantly influence the others in the story.

Celebrity should never be an issue if the writers treat big-name actors the same way as they treat unknown actors, giving everyone character-driven scenes. Ensemble casting gives a series the power to explore many characters, creating storylines in which both stars and new talent can shine.

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, April 10 print edition. Laura Wolford is a staff writer. Email her at [email protected]

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