(cont) but I’d also count something like Mr. Robot where the first season is so in the protagonists head that the late in the first season mixing of supporting characters is unexpectedly exciting, but also highlights what felt off for so much of the time. So the question is, when you think of a television series having it’s ensemble scattered, what examples of how it can go well and badly to your mind
I had to hold back on answering this one, because I was struggling to come up with examples. I wouldn’t really think of Game of Thrones as ‘breaking’ its ensemble, as such, because the way the show was structured made it fairly clear that some characters were extremely unlikely to ever interact. Battlestar Galactica broke its ensemble up fairly regularly, but (with the exception of the ‘stand alones’ in season 2 and 3) one of BSG’s strengths was that it always had a really strong sense of narrative propulsion… so the audience didn’t tend to be as irritated by the ensemble being broken apart for a stretch of episodes. (I loved BSG, by the way, and I think I’m one of the only people who’ll defend the ending, though I acknowledge it’s goofy). Mad Men could be quite gutsy about separating characters from Don’s world – though, with the exception of Betty, they all came back eventually.
The West Wing separated its cast towards the end between the White House and the Santos campaign, though I think they struggled to find a satisfying balance for a while (that said, I think the final run of season 7 has some of the best episodes they ever did – the episode right before the election (“Welcome to Wherever You Are”) has one of the best depictions of the sheer chaos of living inside a media whirlwind I’ve ever seen, probably better than anything Veep has managed – but Veep has always been smaller in scope).
The Thick of It changes quite radically in its final season, when we’re suddenly spending as much time with the new coalition government as with Malcolm and Nicola… but we knew those characters beforehand, so it’s not exactly a shock. (Also, I swear, the horrible spin doctor, Adam, they introduce in the final season feels a little like a proto-Dan… he even has vague sexual tension with Emma the blonde chief of staff – though Emma is much less likeable a character than Amy).
Arrested Development’s season four minimised interaction between characters (I think because of scheduling difficulties), which is the only example I can think of of a sitcom that breaks its ensemble up after so long (though whether Veep or Arrested Development can be considered a sitcom in the traditional sense is probably open to question).
It seems…noteworthy to me that most of the examples I can think of come from dramas not comedies. Which I think points to… the audience will accept beloved characters being split apart, but there needs to be a damn good reason, and it needs to continue to feel like a good reason for as many episodes as it lasts. BSG and the West Wing earn their separations, I’m not sure Veep did – or, they earned it initially, but not over time.
Partly because… I would argue that the separation of the characters in season 6 is a problem, but it is not the main problem. The entire structure of the season feels kind of…experimental to me. Selina’s storyline is aimless because Selina feels aimless – she picks up ideas and drops them again, episode to episode, and has no real idea how to build a life for herself, and the narrative structure of the season reflects that. Which is frustrating for an audience.
That’s not to say that frustrating an audience is something to be avoided necessarily – there are times when it’s worth the pay-off. I’m just not sure Veep season 6 was one of them. But the aimlessness of the main storyline – which eats up say fifteen minutes of every twenty-two – swallows roughly half the cast, and the characters who do have an ongoing story (which is Dan and Jonah, basically) get relegated to the other seven minutes.
Put it another way, if Amy and Mike and Selina had been doing something really interesting and satisfying for the audience to watch, I don’t think the separation of characters would have stuck out so much as a problem. If Amy’s plotline was dramatically satisfying, her lack of interaction with Dan wouldn’t be so irritating (because the audience knows those scenes are satisfying, so it feels like the show is taunting us). Notice how no one was really annoyed with Dan’s storyline this year? Even though there are problems with it (see below), it’s still interesting for at least the first half of the season. But, Amy… as is, Amy does almost nothing between leaving Buddy and getting pregnant, which is not a good look for one of the only female characters. (It’s less bothersome with Mike and Richard, because they’ve never really had plots as such, that’s not how they function as characters).
My instinct is that season 6 is something of an experiment in form, and I’m not totally sure it worked – but kudos for trying. There are a couple of changes they could have made that would have helped though.
Firstly introduce Jaffar, and Selina’s relationship with him, earlier in the season – why not have him in Georgia as an observer, flirting with Selina? I don’t think we get enough time with him to really feel he was a permanent option for Selina or to become emotionally attached to him. And, while the episode with Tom James was probably my favourite (aside from the finale), introducing him in the middle of the romance hobbles it right out of the gate. We’re never really going to buy Jaffar as Selina’s happy ending when there’s someone she cares for more right there. For me, at least, the scene of Selina breaking up with him didn’t land the way I think it was intended to, and I think more time with him would have solved that.
Secondly, have Dan’s downfall be the result of something he’s actually done. Once Jane leaves, his whole plot becomes very confusing. He doesn’t have chemistry with Brie – apparently – except he has enough chemistry with her that she’s cheating on her fiance with him despite 1) not liking him, 2) knowing he’ll stab colleagues in the back given half a chance, but not enough chemistry that it stands out to Veep’s audience (though in fairness, Brie had maybe one fifteen second scene with Dan before we were told they were involved, so… it’s not like she got much of an opportunity – but I thought Reid Scott was a lot more fun to watch playing off Margaret Colin). It’s like they were trying to have it both ways, and I don’t think it really worked – it would actually have been more interesting, in a way, to see Dan struggle with a genuine lack of sexual chemistry, rather than the mishmash they gave us. And not only that, but when Dan has his sudden yet inevitable downfall, it doesn’t stem from any action he actually took… it just kind of…happens. Jane does the interview with Jonah, and in the very next episode, Dan is fired, despite it not being at all clear why one thing would lead to the other (and if his chemistry with Jane was such an asset in the beginning…)
It’s dramatically unsatisfying to have such a big plot development happen for no reason the audience has actually seen – and much like Ben being fired by Jonah, it makes it very transparent that the band is getting back together. So they wound up undermining their own narrative tension. (Given how sketchy Dan’s sexual behaviour has been throughout the show, I can kind of understand why they didn’t have him being taken down by a counter-accusation, say from Brie – it would have landed them in a very strange place – but it would have been more logical, storywise. Or, failing that, they could have done what I thought they were doing, and played Jane’s sexual harassment at least semi-seriously… it still disappoints me that they didn’t, because it would have been gutsy to put a character like Dan in that position, and definitely well-earned karma).