I love TV shows with ensemble casts. There is something about learning a group of people, how they interact, with each one’s strengths and weaknesses, irrational foibles, methods of problem solving. It’s great fun, and it’s what gives shows like M*A*S*H and CSI their longevity.
I want to talk about two shows in particular, though, in terms of the makeup of their casts, because it occurred to me today how similar those casts are. They also happen to be two shows I really enjoy.
WKRP In Cincinnati and Firefly.
I know, not two shows that are thematically linked in most people’s minds, but I think that’ll help show how the different types that make a good team transcend genre and setting.
Let’s take a look at each crew.
The Headstrong Captain: (Mal Reynolds/Art Carlson) A good captain has to have goals, and he has to need help achieving them. Otherwise you end up with a one man show, which can be fun, but is not what I’m talking about. The captain’s job in the series is to keep things moving by motivating the other characters into doing more than they they think they can. To this end, a captain should be continually biting off more than he can chew. He gets the crew into situations where they all have to work together just to get out in one piece. He’s always a little bit out of his depth, confident that his crew can pull of whatever hair-brained scheme he’s concocted, but unclear as to the details.
The Loyal First Mate: (Zoe Washburne/Andy Travis) The first mate plays Sancho Panza to the captain’s Don Quixote. She or he is well grounded in reality. All of the details, and the problems that they represent, are the first mate’s worry. However, along with a practical outlook is a fierce loyalty to the captain. This can lead to a certain fatalism. First mates tend to expect the worst, they are cynics and pessimists, generally taciturn, and express volumes with a raised eyebrow and an exasperated sigh.
The Single-Minded Specialist: (Hoban Washburne/Johnny Fever) They do one thing, they do it well, and they don’t pay attention to much of anything else. While the captain is focused on adventure and the first mate is concerned with danger, the specialist doesn’t notice that anything exciting or dangerous is happening. They can be lighthearted and a little goofy because as long as their personal control panels are in the green all is right in their world. They can be used to defuse tension by making remarks that would be totally at odds with the situation if anyone else said them.
The Sex Symbol: (Inara Serra/Jennifer Marlowe) These characters are about more than just sex, they bring a kind of animal sensuality to the crew that, paradoxically perhaps, results in a calming influence. If the captain decides what the fight is going to be, and the first mate decides how it is to be fought, the sex symbol represents what the crew is fighting for. They are seldom directly involved in the action, but usually have an important supporting role, both in terms of information and motivation.
The Loose Cannon: (Jayne Cobb/Herb Tarlek) These characters are the counterweight on the other end from the first mate. While the first mate is urging calm and pointing out potential obstacles, the loose cannons are all for going full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. They crave action for the sake of action and don’t think about consequences. This doesn’t make them bad, frequently the loose cannon saves the day by doing something that no other character would even consider.
The Plucky Optimist: (Kaylee Frye/Bailey Quarters) These are the characters that let you know that the crew is the good guys. They serve as the moral compass for the crew, encouraging them to listen to their better natures and do what is right. They tend to work at cross purposes to both the first mate and the loose cannon by examining issues not in terms of risk and reward but ethically. Like the sex symbol, they represent what the crew has to lose, but the sex symbol represents what the crew will lose if they fail, while the plucky optimist represents what the crew will lose if they succeed by resorting to the same methods as their antagonists.
The Outsider: (Simon Tam/Venus Flytrap) Outsiders are at some distance removed, mentally, from the rest of the crew. They have backgrounds and life experiences that set them apart, and consequently they see things a little differently from the rest of the crew. This helps the crew be more diverse, but also more cohesive. By offering a different perspective on the common problem, the outsiders bring the focus to what is really important to everyone.
The True Believer: (Shepherd Book/Les Nessman) True Believers are a fixed star. They provide stability by offering the same perspective, no matter what the situation. This doesn’t mean that they are always right, and their input is seldom popular with the rest of the crew, but they are consistent. They may be an obstacle for the captain to navigate around rather than a help, but at least it’s an obstacle that’s always in the same place. In an ongoing series there is always a struggle between offering variety and consistency, the true believers provide a vehicle for consistency to travel along side the crew wherever they end up.
Okay, this ended up getting way longer than I intended, and I’m sure that the Firefly fans (and who isn’t one) are going to pillory me for not even mentioning River, but honestly I believe that River functioned more as an ongoing plot complication than as a member of the crew.
And if I was a real writer I suppose I would wrap this up by stating my conclusions or something, but I don’t have any conclusions. I just found it interesting to find parallels between the cast of two very different (but both well written) series.