Leveraging Your Supporting Cast

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Earlier this month I wrote a piece on what makes the show No Tomorrow so good and promised a follow-up piece about how using your supporting cast in a story can make it stronger. However, I ended up getting distracted by a bunch of Mid-Season Finale things I wanted to talk about. But now we’re back, and I wanted to touch on some of the other shows I’ve enjoyed this fall (besides No Tomorrow) and how their use of the supporting cast has, in my opinion, made the shows much stronger.

Two of my favorite shows to watch this past fall have been been Lucifer and Supergirl. Both are stronger in their second seasons than they were in their first seasons, Supergirl especially, and I think the primary reason why is that they’ve been able to put together stronger story lines and moments for their supporting characters.

Spoilers ahead for both of these shows…

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Lucifer was a fun show to watch right off the bat due to Tom Ellis’ fantastic portrayal of the devil, but this season has proven to be even better than the first. I think part of that is how the chemistry between Ellis and his co-star Lauren German, who plays Detective Chloe Decker, has strengthened, but the cast has also grown and been given some interesting moments too.

Lucifer’s shrink Dr. Linda Martin (Rachel Harris) is the first human who Lucifer shows his true identity to, and she has to grapple with the fact that he’s the devil. Her friendship with Maze (Lesley-Ann Brandt) becomes complicated following this revelation as well, since she now knows Maze is literally a demon. Speaking of Maze, she takes on the role of a bounty hunter to better fit in on Earth and her strained relationship with Amenadiel (D.B. Woodside) is given more screen time. Then there’s Detective Daniel Espinoza (Kevin Alejandro) who is getting a divorce from Decker and has some truly hilarious moments with Lucifer as they try to reconcile their work relationship and the fact that they both care deeply about Chloe.

On top of all this, Aimee Garcia joined the cast as a regular, playing the team’s forensic scientist Ella Lopez, who is developing an interesting relationship with Lucifer which some times even seems to challenge Decker’s tensely romantic relationship with him. And of course there is Tricia Helfer who joined the show as Lucifer’s mother, a new source of frustration and conflict in his life.

One of the best episodes of the season, “Lady Parts”, actually entirely split Lucifer and Decker for most of the episode. Decker goes on a hilarious drunken girls night out with Martin, Lopez, and Maze. Meanwhile, later in the episode, Lucifer goes undercover with Espinoza and Amenadiel at a sex club to try and get clues for their murder investigation. This works because the supporting cast is well developed enough to make these moments fun, and getting to see them in action gives the show more depth.

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Supergirl has similarly given its supporting cast more to do. Where last season essentially every character existed in service of showcasing different facets of Kara’s character, they are now branching out and starting to develop their own subplots. Winn Schott (Jeremy Jordan) and Jimmy Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) have teamed up to create The Guardian, a hi-tech hero who assists Supergirl by fighting crime in National City. J’onn J’onzz (David Harewood), the Martian Manhunter, has developed a complicated relationship with M’gann M’orzz (Sharon Leal), who we find out is a White Martian, the race who committed genocide against the Green Martians.

Then there is Mon-El (Chris Wood), a sort of stranger in a strange land who is trying to navigate his feelings towards Kara and wanting to try and be a hero, and Lena Luthor (Katie McGrath) who struggles against the stigma of her family name while she tries to do good in the world.

But the most notable and compelling of all the subplots is Alex’s discovery of her sexuality as a lesbian relatively late in life, and her developing romance with Detective Maggie Sawyer (Floriana Lima). Compared to many other shows I’ve seen that feature a lesbian character, the story of Alex (Chyler Leigh) felt much more authentic in the way it was portrayed, and we get to see the emotions and confusion of her discovery, which is usually absent from these kinds of stories, at least in mainstream genre series (generally sexuality is just sort of a given in these shows, regardless of what it is). It’s also a big departure from Alex’s character story in the first season, which focused on her sisterly relationship with Kara and her working relationship with J’onn J’onzz, both things that helped build up those characters more than they helped define her.

Expanding Alex’s role in the show has helped give her a definitive place in the story, and it makes her more than just a superhero helper. The same is true of Schott and Olsen who went from competitors for Kara’s affections to people who are actually capable of helping her perform her superhero duties and have their own off-shoot adventures.

As the NerdWriter points out in his video on serials, one of the primary characteristics of a serial is its expansive cast, but not every show or every writer is capable of correctly utilizing the wide range of characters. I think Lucifer and Supergirl have done an exceptional job of doing this in their second seasons, and as I mentioned, No Tomorrow has done a great job with it in its first. The Flash and Arrow have also done this more this season by giving their supporting casts some more meat to work with, and the chronically underrated Agents of SHIELD has been doing this for awhile.

Correctly utilizing your cast adds depth to the world. By making the characters have their own problems and aspirations, you make the story as a whole more credible and authentic, and you can have fun exploring plot lines that wouldn’t make sense for your protagonist. Having a larger cast with compelling subplots can also draw in a wider audience. For example, I find Alex’s story in Supergirl to be really great and enjoy those moments of each episode. Other people might not, but given the wide range of things going on, there is surely something in the show that they can attach to.

These are, in my mind, two of the advantages to writing serials, whether for TV, comic books, or print. If you ever have the opportunity to write one, just make sure that you are using your cast to its fullest possible effect.

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