Take Two Cast Members and Call Me in the Morning
That's right--people. The ER powers that be are going to be flinging a few extra actors at us, the viewing public--Amistad's Djimon Hounsou and Beloved writer Akosua Busia.
Not that ER suffers from a lack of cast members to begin with: Gloria Reuben, Sherry Stringfield, Glenne Headly, Maria Bello, Christine Elise, Omar Epps, Kellie Martin, Alex Kingston, Laura Innes, and Mare Winningham have all passed through the operating room since the original, tightly wrapped cast debuted four years ago. That's not even counting the roster of recurring players who flit in and out of episodes like Jorja Fox (Maggie Doyle), Lisa Nicole Carson (Carla Resse), Khandi Alexander (Jackie Benton) and Michael Beach (Al Boulet), to name only a few, and to exclude most of the blood relatives, the entire nursing staff, and every recurring tragic patient ever to cross a gurney on ER.
The sheer size of that paragraph alone should indicate the gravity of what ails ER: Multiple Actor Syndrome. It's a condition that afflicts shows as they age-- once the plotlines cease being fresh or original, extra characters, many of them "quirky," "abrasive," or "enigmatic," are thrown into the mix to revive the fading show. The symptoms: increasingly large cast photos, or the experience of tuning in to watch a show and waiting twenty minutes to recognize a single actor from the early years. The diagnosis: usually fatal.
Admittedly, ER is slightly handicapped in the plot area, what with there being only a few medical afflictions that can play on prime time. And God knows you can't bring up sticky ethical questions in recreational television, so there go the really intriguing storylines. But ER is not unique in suffering from Multiple Actor Syndrome. Any fading show brings out a growing roster of actors in a last-ditch effort to retain waning viewer interest in the show.
In the last season of Sisters, America's favorite sorority discovered a new sibling--a neat trick since much of the show's conceit hinged on the sisters' childhood relationships affecting their adult interactions. L.A. Law cleaned out the California bar in the last few seasons. thirtysomething began rotating in anyone who survived Altamont as someone's girlfriend, boyfriend, cousin, or coworker. And lest you think sitcoms are immune to Multiple Actor Syndrome, three words: Denise Huxtable Kendall. When in doubt, marry 'em off and give 'em a stepfamily filled with replacement moppets.
But despite ample evidence of Multiple Actor Syndrome's lethal effects, today's shows refuse to practice safe casting. ER is only one case study. Another prime-time medical drama, Chicago Hope has inducted most of the Northwestern University Medical School Class of '89 into the cast, evidently exhausting every actor who ever works on the show. Eric Stoltz, the newest cast member and token "quirky," "enigmatic" character, even said as much, commenting, "I'm full of energy; they're a bit exhausted." Previously-good police drama Homicide: Life on the Street has added four subpar actors to replace one good one--acting supernova Andre Braugher, whose character was given one of television's strangest slow fades over his two final seasons.
And then there's the Fox network.
True, Fox has yet to produce anything resembling an Emmy-caliber show. But the network shows a surprising immunity to Multiple Actor Syndrome, taking preventive measures by inoculating its shows before they get stale. Melrose Place added Heather Locklear when viewers began using MP as a sedative, and then, when the show was in danger of collapsing under the weight of its collective bimbos and their assorted parts, reduced the bimbo battalion by half last season.
Beverly Hills 90210 takes the novel step of rotating actors: the cast population stays the same, while the faces change. True, it doesn't improve the show--nothing short of chaining David Mamet to a desk and forcing him to write episodes could ever pull that off -- but it doesn't really make it any worse.
In a surprise move, Ally McBeal's additional casting actually improves the show: imperious ice queen Ling (Lucy Liu) and elegantly composed Nell (Portia de Rossi) add some welcome gravity to a show that's in constant peril of becoming cloyingly quirky.
But Fox is just the long-shot survivor, and other networks certainly shouldn't look to it to set an example (oh, please, don't look at Fox to set an example for programming). Nobody is immune to Multiple Actor Syndrome. Some shows just get lucky. As for ER? Let's just say the prognosis is mixed.
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