Everybody needs friends. The Girl Scouts advised that you “make new friends, but keep the old.” The Beatles got by with a little help from their friends. They also “ate sandwiches” with their friends, but that’s beside the point.
In the last few years, TV has been all about friends. No, not Friends (although it may as well be since they’re all trying to recreate that ensemble-casted juggernaut), but groups of friends that make up the ensemble cast of hit shows. Gone are the solo-act days of Roseanne, Everybody Loves Raymond, or Whitney (because let’s face it, that last one never really had any “days” to speak of). It’s all about the ensemble – the bigger the better. Are You There, Chelsea? Only one name in that title. And I will forever regret wasting the 10 minutes I spent on it—I could’ve been cleaning the grout in my tiled bathroom with a toothbrush! 2 Broke Girls? Getting there, but once the sprinkles are off the odd-couple cupcakes (so to speak), viewers may be left wanting. But wait! There are more – cast members.
In Modern Family, arguably the best comedy on TV right now, there are nearly a dozen. Each member of the family serves to advance one plot or another in their own way. You’d think that the “the whole family coming together to argue about and then solve a problem” thing would get old (as it really, really did on Brothers & Sisters—how many Merlot-induced fights and revelations can happen at one table?), but it doesn’t. Maybe it’s because episodes sometimes focus more on one family than another, but I’d argue that it’s tough to find an episode that doesn’t feature at least one hilarious contribution from every cast member (including the baby). Every cast member gets a chance to steal the show, and as a result, everyone shines.
In How I Met Your Mother and really-similar-but-just-not-quite-as-good Happy Endings, they cut Modern Family’s cast in half. In comparison, that may not seem like much, but for a single-camera comedy, splitting screen time among five or six actors, each with their own plots and subplots, trials and travails, it’s still a challenge to both honor each character’s individual storylines and maintain an ongoing thread of connection between them all.
Hanging out at the bottom of the appreciation heap (one critical, one for people who don’t know what good TV is) are Cougar Town and Community. Both shows feature groups of friends brought together by proximity—the former a cul-de-sac, the latter a student union—and both came back late in the game for midseason after juuuuust missing the axe.
Cougar Town is okay. The creator (Bill Lawrence) also ran that paragon of quirky ensemble dramedy, Scrubs. Lawrence channels the bigtime quirk into Cougar Town, right down to the snarky title cards that change every episode in an attempt to explain why Cougar Town is relatively devoid of cougars. The characters are weird, they do things no normal adult does, and the whole thing will probably end up being a withdrawal dream from Jules Cobb (Courteney Cox)’s booze-fueled slumber. Seriously, they drink a lot of wine from very large glasses. Often.
Community is awesome. It is far weirder than even Cougar Town (the next strangest in this list), but if you get it, you love it. Everybody functions simultaneously as a team and foils for each other. Just like any group, some are closer than others, and loyalties change from time to time. Just like another awesome NBC show, 30 Rock, Community is chock full of topical pop-culture references and hilarious send-ups of other TV shows or movies.
I feel that I should also mention Parks & Recreation here. I’m not going into detail because I write too much about it already, but there’s an ensemble cast, it’s awesome and you should watch it.
The best way to show you how these ensembles interact is to show you. Compare them one after another, pick your favorite (or three), and catch up!
How I Met Your Mother:
HIMYM is on Netflix Instant Watch and the others can be found on Hulu. Grab three or four of your nearest and dearest, pour a decent red into your own Big Joe, and wonder why your friends aren’t as funny.