Hollywood Reporter TV Critics: 11 Ensembles That Make for Great Company

6:45 AM 4/9/2020

by Daniel Fienberg and Inkoo Kang

Viewers struggling with prolonged solitude or craving escape from their quarantine-mates (sorry spouses, kids and parents) should spend some time with these standout small-screen casts.

Survivor_Atlanta_Freaks and Geeks - Photofest - H 2020
CBS/Photofest; Quantrell D. Colbert/FX; NBC/Photofest

Whether you're quarantining alone or suddenly spending a lot of time with a few select loved ones, you could probably use a group of colorful new acquaintances right about now. And that's what a great TV ensemble is like — not just one or two people you want to hang out with for an hour a week, but a world in which everywhere you turn there's somebody you want to learn more about. A great ensemble is a combined triumph of casting, writing, directing and acting. It's like the best Zoom chat room in the world, only without the stupid backgrounds or that one guy who never mutes or unmutes at the correct time.

We capped our ensemble list — not "best" by any means but certainly "great" — at shows starting in 2000 or later (Freaks and Geeks is the cutoff point). Certain things are clear. First, every single HBO show from the '00s had a great ensemble and we could have filled a list just with them. Second, maybe every show cast by Allison Jones (Freaks and Geeks, Parks and Recreation) wasn't a perfect ensemble, but it sure feels like that. And perhaps most crucially, a great movie can be driven exclusively by an excellent actor or two, but the serial quality of TV practically necessitates that great shows have great ensembles.

Here are just some of our favorites …

  • 'American Horror Story' (FX)

    Say what you will about Ryan Murphy's uneven output, but his eye for casting has never failed him — or us. Murphy tried something deliriously fresh (for television) when he shuffled Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters and others into new roles every season (with the help of AHS casting directors Robert Ulrich, Eric Dawson and Carol Kritzer). Hardly any of the original AHS castmembers remain, and yet the anthology series has stayed highly watchable (if not always "good") because of the strengths of any given season's ensemble, which currently includes new stalwarts like Billie Lourd, Leslie Grossman and John Carroll Lynch. — INKOO KANG

  • 'Atlanta' (FX)

    Atlanta co-star Brian Tyree Henry seemed to be in a different movie every other month in 2018 and 2019, but his talent is so versatile — and his presence so companionable — that one could never get sick of him. The same could be said of Lakeith Stanfield — the second of Atlanta's supporting players to routinely outshine star and creator Donald Glover, himself a formidable actor. Add Zazie Beetz and you've got a cast (by Alexa L. Fogel) as multifaceted as Atlanta itself, an uncategorizable mosaic of strivers, losers and … whatever Teddy Perkins is. — I.K.

  • 'Freaks and Geeks' (NBC)

    Twenty years after its one-season run, Freaks and Geeks might be better remembered as a launching pad for an astounding number of current stars (James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini, Busy Philipps and Martin Starr, with minor parts for Ben Foster, Lizzy Caplan and Shia LaBeouf) than as a television show. (There's that magical Allison Jones touch!) But that would be unfair to this outrageously funny Paul Feig-created teen dramedy, which garnered an enduring cult following for a reason. Rarely are coming-of-age stories told with such warmth — or squirm-inducing familiarity. — I.K.

  • 'Jane the Virgin' (The CW)

    Jane the Virgin did what it did so well — reinvent the telenovela with grounded emotions and winking meta-commentary — that it was easy to take the show's high-wire balancing act for granted. The same goes for its cast, led by Gina Rodriguez, who has the rare talent for imparting whatever emotion her character is feeling to the audience. (If Jane's crying, you're crying — that's just a fact.) Rodriguez was surrounded by an embarrassment of riches (cast by (Alyson Silverberg and Jonathan Clay Harris), but two standouts deserve special mention: Yael Grobglas, for making the soap-operatic trope of the evil twin sister somehow not at all hokey, and narrator Anthony Mendez, for never letting the show's energy flag for five seasons through deaths, resurrections, kidnappings and countless takeovers of the Marbella hotel. — I.K.

  • 'Lodge 49' (AMC)

    Like HBO, AMC has made a business of marvelously deep ensembles, and it would be easy to single out Mad Men or Breaking Bad. But for this exercise, I'm going with the deeper cut. AMC's short-lived, trippy dark comedy — available on Hulu — may have a cast led by Wyatt Russell, veteran character actor Brent Jennings and series revelation Sonya Cassidy, but nearly every corner of the show, from the entire Order of the Lynx to the kitchen at Shamroxx and the corporate offices at Omni, is populated by sublime character actors selected with artisanal perfection by casting director Debra Zane. Every actor is capable of stealing or carrying a scene, including David Pasquesi, Linda Emond, Eric Allan Kramer, David Ury, Brian Doyle-Murray, Joe Grifasi, Olivia Sandoval and that Paul Giamatti guy from the second season. — DANIEL FIENBERG

  • 'Orange Is the New Black' (Netflix)

    One hallmark of a great TV ensemble is that it's able to reload so that a show like The Wire or Friday Night Lights isn't just one great ensemble, but two or three. Casting director Jennifer Euston had to populate and repopulate Litchfield Penitentiary seven times over, each time managing to fill a place we'd never want to find ourselves in with people we wanted to learn more about. And every viewer's list of favorite inmates (and occasionally guards and administrators) would probably be different, almost season-to-season. Standout cast members are Uzo Aduba, Danielle Brooks, Adrienne C. Moore, Samira Wiley, Taryn Manning (especially in the later seasons), Laverne Cox (especially in the early seasons), Jackie Cruz, Diane Guerrero, Nick Sandow, Alysia Reiner and, honestly, way too many others to list, with nearly every actor getting the chance to breathe life into their perfectly flawed character. — D.F.

  • 'Pose' (FX)

    Ryan Murphy and casting director Alexa L. Fogel offer a reminder that if you give yourself a mission, you can achieve great things. On paper, the achievement of this '80s-set drama is the largest cast of trans actors in regular roles in TV history. But the astonishing thing isn't the numbers but how good so many of these actors, rarely given spotlight opportunities like this previously, have been. At different points, Mj Rodriguez and Indya Moore have anchored the show and co-stars like Dominique Jackson and Angelica Ross have carried fantastic episodes or arcs. And that's before you get to the ultra-confident ruler of this particular roost: the remarkable, Emmy-winning Billy Porter. Tens, tens, tens across the board! — D.F.

  • 'Succession' (HBO)

    This could be an entire list of HBO shows, and I won't try arguing that the Succession ensemble is necessarily better than the immaculate cast of hundreds in The Wire or the casts of dozens in Deadwood or The Sopranos. But I like reflecting on the double magic of Francine Maisler's assemblage of the Roy family — namely that it's a TV clan that feels plausibly related and that, despite how uniformly insufferable every single character would be if you encountered them in the real world, it's hard not to relish each and every moment we're in their toxic presence. For people stuck at home with exhausting family members of their own, Succession is the embodiment of the Yiddish parable "It could always be worse." — D.F.

  • 'Survivor' (CBS)

    Casting a reality show is every bit as complicated and essential as casting a scripted show. I thought about going with Michael Apted's Up series, originally developed for TV even if some subsequent installments have had theatrical runs, but instead I'm honoring the mad geniuses in CBS' reality department (particularly Survivor casting director Lynne Spiegel Spillman). There have surely been a couple of dud casts, but in 40 seasons, the balance swings wildly toward excellence and it all starts with the first season, which gave us a veritable rogue's gallery of future reality archetypes — and, from Richard Hatch and Sue Hawk to supporting players like Rudy and Colleen and Jenna and Gervase, established one of TV's great repeatable templates. — D.F.



  • '30 Rock' (NBC)/'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt' (Netflix)

    Any long-running, critically acclaimed sitcom — your Arrested Developments, your It's Always Sunnys, your Veeps — probably deserves a spot on this list. But let us make the case for 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as well as Tina Fey's underrated knack for casting (with help from casting director Jennifer McNamara). Headlined by Fey and Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock boasted an all-star comedy team that brought the best out of the show's character-driven, manically paced scripts. The 30 Rock cast seemed unbeatable until Kimmy Schmidt debuted with its veteran troupe (Ellie Kemper, Tituss Burgess, Carol Kane and 30 Rock alum Jane Krakowski) making the series funnier, sillier and stranger, all at twice the speed. — I.K.