Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Bridesmaids, Metcalfe’s Law, and the power of ensembles

with 2 comments

On Friday, my wife and I finally caught Bridesmaids, which is a classic example of energy and a star-making performance (by the sensational Kristen Wiig) bringing out the best in a formulaic, if nimble, script. It also benefits, like most films from the Judd Apatow factory, from a remarkably deep bench of supporting actors, including Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Ellie Kemper, Jill Clayburgh, and Jon Hamm. The ensemble is so good, in fact, and has the potential to pair off its actors in so many surprising ways, that it’s something of a disappointment when the movie starts to focus exclusively on Wiig. We’re given a couple of scenes with the bridal party as a whole, but they all occur in the movie’s first half, and we’re never given the sort of inspired, inexorable comic set piece that the chemistry of the cast might have led us to expect. (Perhaps that will have to wait for the inevitable sequel.)

The movie’s decision to shy away from its supporting cast—the characters played by Ellie Kemper and Wendi McLendon-Covey, in particular, all but disappear in the third act—is a puzzling one, both because of the thrust of the marketing and because ensembles, especially in comedy, can result in unforgettable moments. Many of the recent films in the Apatow universe have revolved around putting a bunch of funny actors onscreen, rolling a lot of film, and hoping that something great happens. And occasionally it does. This is especially true of in television: even a mediocre episode of The Office, for instance, is usually worth watching for the sake of the cast, which retains a lot of viewer goodwill and still yields unexpected combinations. And as I’ve said before, it was Mad Men that opened my eyes to the potential of large casts of characters and the possibilities they provide.

Ensembles are particularly useful in television, where the various arrangements of characters can supply material, hopefully, for years of stories. To put it in the nerdiest terms possible, it’s an instance of Metcalfe’s Law, which states that the value of a social network is proportional to the square of connected users (n2, or, more precisely, n(n − 1)/2).  A cast of characters is a peculiar kind of social network: it’s assembled by a producer, set into motion by the actors and writing staff, and its value lies in its connections, as various characters collide in interesting ways. The number of dramatically useful interactions also tends to increase over time, which is why the second and third seasons of a good television show are often the most interesting, once actors have had a chance to discover their most fruitful combinations. (Which is also why it’s sad that so many promising shows never get the chance to find this rhythm.)

Of course, there are limitations to such a model. Too many characters, and the show may never get the chance to adequately establish its supporting cast, so the pairings seem forced or arbitrary. (See: Glee.) But if exercised judiciously, it’s a useful tool for all kinds of narrative fiction, including the novel—and particularly for writers who otherwise tend to overlook such possibilities. As I’ve mentioned in previous postings, my first novel was a fairly focused story, with a limited number of important characters, largely because the plot itself was already so complicated. The sequel has a much larger cast, partly because I wanted to put some of Mad Men‘s lessons to use, and because I hoped that an expansive supporting cast would take me to interesting places. And I’m not the only writer to recognize this. In one of the notebooks he kept while writing Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann writes:

Nothing yet has been done about staffing the book with meaningful subsidiary figures. In The Magic Mountain these were provided by the personnel of the sanatorium, in Joseph by the Bible; there it was a question of realizing the potentialities of the Biblical figures…The characters will have to be supplied out of the past, out of memory, pictures, intuition. But the entourage must first be invented and fixed…

More than almost anything else, a rich entourage of characters, if it arises naturally from the plot and setting, can take the story in unexpected directions. A large cast isn’t always a good thing. But if you’re looking to expand the world you’ve created, there’s no better way than to select two characters at random, put them in a room, and see what they have to say.

2 Responses

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  1. I loved Bridesmaids. I think Kristen Wiig had been playing supporting roles for so long and was obviously capable of playing a lead role but hadn’t yet had a film focused on her, it was time. I’ve been frustrated that she’s had to wait for so long to get this.

    My guilty pleasure is the show Parenthood, and it’s guilty because the storylines are fluffy and speedy. Instead of doing a Thirtysomething or Once and Again formula where two characters are the focus of one episode, Parenthood does storylines for all four families. It makes the series flimsy when it has the potential to be more.

    kirstenmajor

    May 26, 2011 at 7:44 am

  2. I haven’t seen Parenthood, but I know that focusing on too many characters can spread a show pretty thin. I didn’t mention it in my post, but it’s also true that the best “ensemble” shows really center on one or two primary characters, with the focus shifting to the rest of the cast as necessary. Without some kind of central organizing principle, a series can quickly fall apart. (Arrested Development is a nice example of how to do this right.)

    nevalalee

    May 26, 2011 at 11:34 am


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