Power Rankings! Ensemble Casts

2:30 PM 9/7/2017

by Tim Goodman

THR's chief TV critic ranks the best ensembles on the small screen right now.

Big Bang Theory-Game of Thrones-This is Us - Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment; HBO; NBC

I love the cast.

I'm going to miss the cast.

I like to spend time with the cast.

I wish the cast were my friends.

I never tire of the cast.

I wish this cast got more credit for being amazing.

Holy shit, this cast.

OK, so you get the point of what this week's Power Rankings! is getting at. In many ways, this idea is fan driven. These are the things I constantly hear from people about shows they love. I took that and applied my own barometer to it, since it's not very difficult for a television critic to find examples of series to love because those series check all the boxes of greatness and, not surprisingly, also have a fantastic cast, while at the same time ticking off any number of shows that might not crack a strictly defined Top Ten list but have an amazing, sprawling, diverse (in all its different ways) cast.

Those instances, I would argue, are where the cast supplants the most important thing in any TV series — the writing. Oh, I get that TV is currently employing and will continue to attract (in droves) very talented directors, but TV is still primarily a writer's medium, while film is a director's medium. We can hash that out some other time.

But wow, when a cast can overcome either sloppy writing or writing that's been pushed and bent into untenable directions by, say, a broadcast schedule that ridiculously calls for 22 or 24 episodes, you really have something special.

Actors are fascinating. They can elevate words and they can destroy words. Beyond that, I've always keenly enjoyed the fact that acting is a sort of artistic witchcraft, where a person leaves their body (while still in it, but you know what I mean) to become someone else. A known quantity — an actor or actress you've seen for ages, populating all the late night talk shows, etc. — suddenly morphs into something completely other and you believe it. Like Hugh Laurie. You know Hugh Laurie. Well, none of us do, but we think we do (except for stupid Americans who never learned he was known for comedy before House). Anyway, if Hugh Laurie stands in front of you, you know him. And then he does The Night Manager. And then he does Chance. And you can't shake that transformation — particularly if you've seen A Bit of Fry & Laurie, Blackadder, Jeeves and Wooster and yes, Stuart Little and House andVeep and maybe a piano player on a jazz album you once heard — and you think, "My God, this man is not the man I thought I knew; this man is a chameleon, transformative, abnormal."

And you would be right because he's an actor. Same for Helen Mirren. And countless others.

It's absolutely realistic that some other form of these Power Rankings! will involve actors. Why wouldn't it? But in this installment, I was searching for something transient, moody, ephemeral, even. That feeling when you watch a show and realize, in addition to the examples listed prior, that what is keeping you hooked, what is driving you to finish it is acting.

And what I love about the flexibility of this particular Power Rankings! — when its turn next comes around in the future, the shows on it will surely be different, or ranked in some other order — is that appreciating the quality of a cast can take many shapes or elicit many different reactions. You might like the two leads and two very minor characters. You might love every single actor listed on IMDB. Conversely, you might suffer through the leads but really and truly love the five or so minor characters who, in your household, make watching the show essential.

Hell, old people in the casting profession are still talking about Friends and how that was magic that is rarely repeated (same with Cheers, though I would argue that both shows had writers who could write the hell out of any situation).

Focusing on casts that make a difference changes up the primary narrative of the Power Rankings!, in that some shows that would otherwise be missing from a best-of ranking of top dramas or comedies will be here because the cast utterly makes it so. That's really the point. And, oh yes, there will be shows here that could top any year-end best-of list because they are brilliant top to bottom, equally, cast included of course.

By the way, this was brutally difficult to winnow down and keep from getting unwieldy. So, next time around, expect flux.

So, let's do this. Let's celebrate strong casts — keeping in mind the initial Power Rankings rule that they need to have aired in the last 12 months. Lots of wonderful series I love will miss that mark — I'm looking at you, Happy Valley — but there will be other Power Rankings! in the future, including ones not tethered to the one-year rule (because, let's be honest, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Downton Abbey, Lost, Seinfeld and countless others would be hard to dislodge).

All hail the series that can hold down the No. 1 slot the longest. As you'll see below, there are two numbers associated with each entry. The number on the left is the current ranking; the number on the right was its last ranking. They will of course match on the inaugural list.

  • 1/1 - The Simpsons

    You were expecting something else? Come on. This might be the greatest collection of characters ever, with a voice cast that sets the gold standard. And yes, writing and inspiration conceptualized some of these all-time gems. From the core group to Moe, Apu, Kent Brockman, Diamond Joe Quimby, Groundskeeper Willie…where do you start and where do you finish that list? It's why The Simpsons is No. 1.

  • 2/2 - Game of Thrones

    This might be more relatable (but cartoon characters are people too!). Anyway, I can never answer quickly when asked who my favorite character is on Game of Thrones because the cast inhabits them all so well. I still see Ned Stark vividly, so thank you Sean Bean. But up and down this cast, from Peter Dinklage to Lena Headey, Maisie Williams to Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Aidan Gillen, Carice Van Houten, Conleth Hill, etc., it's difficult to find another series where even fleeting glimpses of characters have impact because the cast is tremendous and — so, so important — likable, even if they are villains. A wonderfully populated group of people.

  • 3/3 - Veep

    Part of the reason Wednesday's revelation that Veep would end after its next season hurt so much is that people love to sit down and have this cast work magic with comedy. Pick your poison here. I could watch Julia Louis-Dreyfus be nasty to people every day, but the eclectic mix of personalities as brought to life by Matt Walsh, Kevin Dunn, Timothy Simons and everyone else is a lovely tonic for the real world. (I should add here that listing every actor of every show is not possible, but when and if they make return appearances on this Power Rankings!, I'll do my best to highlight others.)

  • 4/4 - This Is Us

    People love this show. They are passionate about it. And it's not just because Sterling K. Brown is astounding or they totally get Chrissy Metz or love Milo Ventimiglia — it's all those things, plus an interest in their stories. Separating actor from character isn't necessary for any series on this list — the combination is probably why they're here at all.


  • 5/5 - Orange Is the New Black

    There will be a number of series here with very deep casts. But it doesn't mean that more is better (as I'll show soon enough). More is often much harder, that much is true. Orange Is the New Black very early on made viewers realize that Taylor Schilling's Piper was the entry to the story, but the world around her and the people who populated it would be the reason to keep investing. This is a brilliantly cast series which had the good sense to eventually spend a little time with a lot of them, which gave OITNB enduring appeal. Everybody popped at some point.  

  • 6/6 - Stranger Things

    Children can be annoying, let's be clear about that. And child actors often magnify that perception. But sometimes a well-cast series of young actors are the hook, as they are here. Then again, as much as much as Millie Bobby Brown and Gaten Matarazzo kept scene stealing, for a lot of people the whole thing was held together by David Harbour, who was note-perfect. 

  • 7/7 - Big Bang Theory

    Arguably the more modern version of the Friends ideal, where a sitcom elicits laughs through the years and keeps boredom at bay with a cast of people that viewers at home want to invite into their homes each week (for maybe too many years). This is well-earned for Big Bang Theory. Of course, now your devotion has spawned Young Sheldon

  • 8/8 - Grey's Anatomy

    Oh, don't be so surprised. I'm trying to be fair here. These past two entries might not have been my personal favorites, but there's absolutely no denying how deeply important the cast was and is to their lengthy streak of success. Grey's Anatomy, like so many beloved doctor, lawyer and cop series on broadcast television before it, lives and dies by having actors who can transport viewers through the soap and shenanigans. Because we have such a deep history of solid ensemble shows to illustrate that, you might think it's an easy trick. It's not. Sandra Oh, Patrick Dempsey, James Pickens Jr., Chandra Wilson, Kevin McKidd — and yep, lots of people who didn't hit triple digits in their episode count, all helped make this thing work. 

  • 9/9 - Sense8

    When nothing made sense here, the actors made you stay. And yes, Naveen Andrews and Darryl Hannah and Terrence Mann were cast to hold things down while lesser known actors emerged. And wow, did they ever. There are many joys I'll miss about Sense8, but watching this entire cast mesh is the biggest. They were, indeed, connected. Any fan will tell you that. In particular I'll miss Bae Doona, Miguel Angel Silvestre and Freema Agyeman

  • 10/10 - Modern Family

    I might quibble with some of the kids, but everywhere else is perfection. Sitcoms not only allow for outsized characters, they almost demand it, which is why Ty Burrell, Sofia Vergara and Ed O'Neill crash so well together, as Julie Bowen's more subtle efforts and the exquisite pairing of Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet works so beautifully. 

  • 11/11 - Bob's Burgers

    A good argument could be made that it's easier to do Simpsons-like characters (though the staggering number of them in that show, again, places it No. 1) vs. less initially overt animated characters like, well, everyone on Bob's Burgers (or, in the past, King of the Hill). But getting to know a voice cast that seems so simply built (not counting H. Jon Benjamin, the legend) and in turn their nuanced, not cartoony characters pays off in a deeper relationship with the audience over time.

  • 12/12 - Sherlock

    Taking nothing away from Mark Gatiss, who I appreciate so much in so many things, I present to you the two-man wrecking crew of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, who prove emphatically (as Idris Elba does in Luther), that you don't need an enormous cast to create an enormous magnet. The interplay between Cumberbatch and Freeman is ornate and finely crafted, yet they are also wonderful framed alone. 

  • 13/13 - Girls

    Again, comments for this section are closed. Move along. You can do your thesis on the casting of Girls somewhere else, but it would be very difficult to deny this combination of people didn't do something to you, even if it wasn't always what you imagined wanting. Beyond the now infamous core four, take a look at Adam Driver, Andrew Rannells and Alex Karpovsky, then shuffle yourself out.

  • 14/14 - American Crime

    Anthologies are difficult. Some years are better than others. Some years are not discernibly different from others but maybe they pop less, rely on subtlety more often or whatnot. (I mean, I love every season of Fargo for different reasons. I'd like all three to be here at the same time.) Ask Elvis Nolasco how much I still marvel at his season one performance in this particular anthology. But wow — a core of Regina King and Felicity Huffman is one hell of a block to build around. It's like their work reverberates through everybody else who shows up on set.

  • 15/15 - The Americans

    I always raise the bullhorn for the main players, and Margo Martindale is otherworldly, but add in the likes of Frank Langella, Costa Ronin, Alison Wright, Annet Mahendru, Lev Gorn, Richard Thomas and on down the line and every year you can marvel at great actors bringing great writing to life.

  • 16/16 - Brooklyn Nine-Nine

    This show has now made three of the five Power Rankings!, so let's golf clap the hell out of that. And yes, casting Andy Samberg to play off of Andre Braugher remains inspired all these years later. But the sign of a tremendous ensemble cast is flip-flopping over all the characters you love and the actors who absorb and translate their traits so enjoyably each week, because you can't pick one over the other. That's Brooklyn Nine-Nine. You can come into my living room anytime. 

  • 17/17 - Jane the Virgin

    A star was born with Gina Rodriguez, no doubt about that. Wow. But the enduring triumph is that most of American didn't know anyone in this cast the night it first appeared and now, like the finest of soap operas (even the ones you spoof), viewers can't imagine this show without them and argue over pairings. Plus two words: Jaime Camil. So, yeah, the cast got you. From nothing to everything. 

  • 18/18 - It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia

    Here's a similar story. Take a young cast almost nobody's heard of, toss in Danny DeVito as security and hope for the best. What could possibly go wrong? Well, nothing, actually. It all went right and a very talented little ensemble ended up making one of the greatest sitcoms ever. They aren't as cuddly as your standard broadcast network comedy, but that didn't stop networks from poaching them. See what happens when the Gang is a talented collection of lovable losers? 

  • 19/19 - Saturday Night Live

    Is it unfair to include SNL or essential? Not everybody is exceptionally funny in every scene or has the acting chops to keep both sides of the frame nailed down, but I can't see a scenario where an ensemble like this can be excluded.

  • Out, In Peril and In the Mix

    OUT Nothing.

    IN PERIL Like the "escapist fare" Power Rankings! that ran previously, this will be a list of constant flux.

    IN THE MIX Here's an example of that very thing, since all of these were serious contenders this time: The Middle, The Mindy Show, You're the Worst, Outlander, American Horror Story, Rectify, Westworld, Silicon Valley, Black-ish, The Leftovers, Fargo, The Night Of, Better Call Saul, The 100, The Goldbergs, The Blacklist, Orphan Black, Fresh off the Boat, Humans.