A couple of weeks ago, I was having dinner with a TV writer friend, and we were talking about the show This Is Us, a series both of us liked, more or less, but that both of us also had significant problems with. And yet the show was such a hit, had hit the zeitgeist at precisely the right time, when most other shows in its genre have struggled to find an audience.
What my writer friend and I concluded was simple: That show took off because in every single role, it had nailed the casting. That extended to actors the audience knew well, like Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore. It extended to actors the audience didn't know as well but had probably seen before, like Sterling K. Brown. And it extended to new faces like Chrissy Metz. Even the actors I don't like on this show -- hi, Milo! -- are very, very well-cast in the parts they're in. They're new enough and interesting enough that they carry you past the first season bumps all shows have and the more particular bumps this show has.
Usually, when a show takes off like this, the casting is a big part of it. Think back to that first season of Glee, when those kids seemed so new and interesting, or the first seasons of Desperate Housewives and Lost, which were two casts full of actors you both knew well and didn't know at all, all impeccably chosen. All TV shows struggle in season one, but the right cast can paper over enough of those holes to buy the writers breathing room.
So that's what I concluded from our chat: casting buys you a first season. Indeed, casting might be the single most important element of creating a new TV show. Premises can be tweaked. Writing can be strengthened. But you're pretty much stuck with the actors you have, unless you're the kind of show that can kill all of them off. (And, honestly, even if you're that kind of show, having to kill off all of your cast wouldn't be a sign of strength, really.)
You can get by with one or two really well-cast characters if they're particularly well cast. I don't think the first season of 24, for instance, is well-cast top to bottom. But Jack Bauer, David Palmer, Nina, and Terri are all well-cast, and they hold things together while the rest of the cast locks in. (But you'll also note that show really struggled in season one, so.)
I do think there's a bit more forgiveness when it comes to comedies, where building the ensemble is so important to the first couple of seasons. It took a bit for Steve Carell to figure out Michael Scott on The Office, for instance, and plenty of great comedies have had to find their optimal casts over the first few seasons. (Just recently, it took Parks and Recreation a while to settle on its core cast.)
But if you nail the casting from day one? That often turns a promising show into a sensation. And the showrunners who are really good at casting also tend to be the showrunners who have the most commercial success. For example, Joss Whedon is good at finding actors within a very particular range, but that range doesn't tend to cross over into "big hit" status. J.J. Abrams, by contrast, is really great at letting his writing suit a wide variety of acting types, and he tends to assemble more obviously well-cast ensembles. I think the Firefly cast is phenomenal, but you only need compare them to the similarly sized cast of Alias to see which showrunner has a stronger handle on finding actors who will be compelling to the largest number of people possible, as quickly as possible.
There's a caveat here, though, which is that a great cast will get you through season one -- but it will also be easy to ignore underlying flaws in the show because that cast is so good. This is something that, say, Desperate Housewives struggled with after season one. The show itself wasn't really built to run for more than one season, and nobody had really thought much about that until they were suddenly turning Alfre Woodard into... whatever that show did with Alfre Woodard. When it got better in subsequent seasons, it was largely because the series made the turn toward a more typical primetime soap, and something that had been so fun about the series was lost.
So if the cast buys you season one, then the writing and direction buy you season two and beyond. As This Is Us has moved through its first season, it's patched up fewer of the obvious holes (at least as I see them) than I would have expected, perhaps because, well, the cast was so good and everybody loves them. But in season two, familiarity will start to set in, and viewers will be tempted to drift toward something exciting and new. Maybe This Is Us fixes those flaws in the off-season, and maybe it doesn't. But if it hits a sophomore slump, it might be because of how good its most obvious element is.
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