Parks and Recreation
Forget “right now”: Parks and Recreation has one of the best ensemble comedy casts of all time. Let’s count the ways: the generous earnestness Amy Poehler gives Leslie Knope; Nick Offerman’s gruff, DIY libertarianism as Ron Swanson; Aziz Ansari creates a Tom Haverford whose delusions are as endearing as his dreams; Chris Pratt transformed what could been a one-note deadbeat boyfriend into the vehicle for the show’s best physical comedy; Aubrey Plaza makes deadpan negs and apathetic eye-rolls into an art; and Rob Lowe’s character so closely resembles real-life health nuts that if you describe someone you know as “a total Chris Traeger,” everyone will instantly know what you mean. After five seasons, even characters who are often relegated to the background — Retta’s Donna, Jim O’Heir’s Jerry — or tend to play straight man to Parks and Rec‘s many oddballs — Rashida Jones’ Anne, Adam Scott’s Ben — have become beloved. That’s because what makes this cast magical goes beyond the talents of any individual actor; it’s about the way they translate the genuine fun they have working together to the screen.
Scandal’s is one of those ensemble casts where everyone is very good, but a few standouts are flat-out fantastic. Columbus Short, Darby Stanchfield, Tony Goldwyn, Katie Lowes, and Joshua Malina are reliably believable, and each had his or her moment in the first two seasons. But part of what they excel at is moving to the side for the melodrama’s real showstoppers: Jeff Perry as the president’s chillingly Machiavellian chief of staff, Cyrus Rutherford Beene; Guillermo Diaz as a shell-shocked former CIA torturer oozing with nervous, socially stunted brilliance; and, of course, Kerry Washington’s career-defining role as Olivia Pope, the physical embodiment of moral gray era.
Game of Thrones
You don’t ever see all of them on the screen at the same time, but that’s part of the magic of the Game of Thrones cast: there are seemingly dozens of characters, and most of the show’s intrigue comes from the many surprising ways they come together in twos and threes and, occasionally, tens. Among many bright spots are Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s increasingly sympathetic performance as a character who was initially a villain, Jaime Lannister; Emilia Clarke’s fearless yet wide-eyed portrayal of Daenerys Targaryen; and, of course, Peter Dinklage’s Emmy-winning turn as the infinitely likable Tyrion Lannister, a debauched runt of the litter with a heart of gold. (As a longtime Skins fan, I also won’t complain that the show has taken a shine to its alums.)
Orange Is the New Black
Unfortunately, there isn’t enough room on this list for every show on Netflix. But with apologies to House of Cards and Arrested Development (great cast; not so much an ensemble in its current incarnation), it was the women of Orange Is the New Black who stood out most for me this year. In this case, the protagonist, Taylor Schilling’s Piper Chapman, is something of a blank background against which stunning supporting performances are projected. My particular favorites are Uzo Aduba, who brings dignity to a mentally ill suitor of Piper’s whose claim to fame is peeing on the floor at tense moments; Laverne Cox, who presents her trans woman inmate’s tangled personal life with warmth and familiarity; and Natasha Lyonne, who was basically born to play a mouthy rich girl ruined on heroin. Oh, and Taryn Manning is downright terrifying every time she steals a scene as holy rolling nutcase Pennsatucky.
Getting the familial chemistry right for a television version of Ron Howard’s 1989 movie Parenthood was demonstrably difficult — an earlier adaptation had already tried and failed back in ’90. But showrunner Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights) knows how to create a tight ensemble, and the show’s cast has only become stronger with each passing season, a byproduct of the months they’ve spent together on and off-screen, becoming something of a family themselves. The chemistry between the four adult siblings (played by Peter Krause, Lauren Graham, Dax Shepard, and Erika Christensen) is particularly credible; these four feel like they’ve spent their lives irritating, supporting, and one-upping each other. Also worth noting are the sparks between Graham and daughter Mae Whitman, who is such a remarkable chameleon that she actually sounds like her TV mom. Parenthood is a tearjerker, but not a cheap or manipulative one; because the cast is so strong and believable, the viewer feels as attached to this family as they are to each other. — Jason Bailey
The Wire may be David Simon’s masterpiece, but that doesn’t justify the depressing indifference with which HBO’s throngs of Game of Thrones and Girls fans met his post-Katrina New Orleans follow-up, Treme. As the show prepares its shortened final season, it’s worth celebrating its world-class cast. I’m baffled that neither Khandi Alexander nor Wendell Pierce has received so much as a single Emmy nomination for pulling off their subtle yet emotional roles with such grace. There’s also the chronically underrated Kim Dickens, whose every-chef character embodies the city’s struggling culinary scene. John Goodman’s Season 1 arc as the doomed Creighton Bernette comprises some of the most lyrical TV acting in history. And need I remind you that this cast also includes Academy Award winner Melissa Leo? Hell, even faintly annoying Steve Zahn does a good job (as a faintly annoying character).
In the past, Community‘s cast was largely overshadowed by the neurotic, combative genius of its creator and showrunner, Dan Harmon. But if his absence last season accomplished nothing else worthwhile, it at least reminded us of the excellent chemistry between its actors. Gillian Jacobs delves deeper into navel-gazing activist Britta every season, making sure we’re laughing with her more often than at her. Abed Nadir could have become an irritating nerdsplainer, if not for Danny Pudi’s humanizing performance. Every moment Alison Brie spends onscreen is delightful. If Jeff Winger’s personal-growth arc is among the most mishandled story lines in TV history, Joel McHale makes his character’s charismatic bullshittery fun to watch. And then there’s Jim Rash’s Dean Pelton, quite possibly one of the flat-out funniest television characters of all time.
Say what you want about the show’s fluctuating writing; its acting has been flawless throughout all six seasons. Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss are its anchors, entirely disappearing into their roles and consistently setting the emotional tone for the entire ensemble. But their castmates are just an uncannily talented at evoking emotional reactions from the audience, from the empathy Christina Hendricks makes us feel for Joan and our bemusement at John Slattery’s Roger to the annoyance January Jones’ icy Betty and outright hatred Vincent Kartheiser’s slimy Pete Campbell inspire. Over the years, Mad Men has been especially good at showcasing new talent — Megan Paré, James Wolk, and even young Kiernan Shipka come to mind. Last season’s bonus: Lindsay Weir — sorry, Linda Cardellini — as Don Draper’s latest conquest.
There are ensemble casts with a definitive lead, and then there’s The League. Pete (Mark Duplass), Kevin (Stephen Rannazzisi), Jenny (Katie Aselton), Andre (Paul Scheer), Ruxin (Nick Kroll), Taco (Jon Lajoie), and we’ll throw in Rafi (Jason Mantzoukas ) for good measure, all gel together to make the funniest group of awful people on television. — Jason Diamond
Do voice casts count? They do when they feature some of the most distinctive voices in comedy, and Bob’s Burgers had the insight to cast Kristen Schaal, Eugene Mirman, and Dan Mintz (the latter playing a boy-crazy teenage girl) as children. Each member of that trio brings his or her own off-kilter sensibility to TV’s quirkiest youngsters, and it’s to creator/showrunner Loren Bouchard’s credit that their personalities come out in the characters. Of course, the Belcher family wouldn’t be complete without Mom and Dad — and John Roberts’ flightiness as Linda is the perfect foil to H. Jon Benjamin’s harried Bob, who maintains a constant air of low-level panic.