When CBS’s “How I Met Your Mother” aired from 2005-14, the comedy did just fine with a cast of five series regulars who entertained viewers with the tale of a single guy telling his kids the story of falling in love with their mother. On Jan. 18 when Hulu debuts its spiritual spinoff, “How I Met Your Father,” the cast will be larger: six regulars plus four recurring guest stars, one of whom is the show’s on-camera narrator (Kim Cattrall) in each episode.
CBS’s current reboot of “Magnum P.I.” has six series regulars; the original 1980-88 series had four.
Peacock’s 2021 “Punky Brewster” redo had a cast of seven, up from the original 1984-88 series, which had a four-person cast.
Economic inflation is one thing but what are the reasons for TV reboot cast inflation and what does it say about modern viewers’ expectations?
Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, says prior to the 1980s, viewers expected less complexity from TV programs both in storytelling and the size of the cast.
“You could have a pair of protagonists and a boss and that would sustain what constituted a story,” Thompson says. “Now even in the most basic genre, like a procedural, there’s an expectation that there’s going to be a lot more going on and one of the ways to do that is to add characters.”
Writer Anna Fricke, a veteran of serialized, character-driven dramas including family-centric “Everwood,” pitched the 2020 “Walker, Texas Ranger” reboot starring Jared Padalecki to CW executives as “Everwood, Texas Ranger” because it centers on the multigenerational Walker family, which was not the focal point of the original CBS series.
“I’m interested in telling the story of this complicated widower and father who happens to be a Texas Ranger while finding a way to be a single parent,” Fricke says of the CW’s “Walker,” which began with nine series regulars, more than double the original 1993-2001 series. “I wasn’t really interested in a run-and-gun show.”
Viewers moved beyond that simplistic dynamic, too.
While serialized TV dramas began with daytime soap operas, they started to be taken seriously when more novelistic storytelling moved into prime time with NBC’s “Hill Street Blues” (1981-87). The critical acclaim and moderate ratings success of that series and those that followed, including “St. Elsewhere,” “China Beach” and other dramas that prioritized character development and serialization, led to an increasing number of award-winning, scripted cable dramas with ongoing stories, including “The Sopranos,” “The Shield” and dozens of series on HBO, Showtime and FX.
While serialized shows tend not to perform well in traditional syndicated reruns, series with ongoing story lines did extremely well on DVD and have proven to be the most-watched series on streaming services and the bread-and-butter of youth-skewing network the CW.
“Every now and then we’ll do a case of the week,” Fricke says of “Walker,” “and we always try to emotionally tie things to the characters, but the thinner that connection is, the less you care. So we try to keep things serialized and personal and have their case work be the personal work. Even network executives have said to us that we don’t have to do a case every week.”
While “Walker” brought in an entirely new cast, some reboots have a larger cast because of the introduction of a new generation of characters alongside returnees. That’s how “Full House” (ABC, 1987-95, with eight regular characters) became “Fuller House” (Netflix, 2016-20, with eight regular and another 10 recurring characters).
Peacock’s “Saved by the Bell” sequel series, now in its second season, has a cast of nine (plus three original series cast members who recur), compared to the seven-person cast of the original show (NBC, 1989-92).
“You want to make a new show that wholly stands on its own and has series regular characters you invest in that can be in every episode,” says Tracey Wigfield, showrunner of the new “Bell.” “You also owe it to the audience if you’re doing a reboot of an old show and these people from the original show are available and want to be on it to include them as well. We have to make sure we’re striking the right balance and spending enough time on the new kids and carving out enough room for the old cast, keeping in mind that a certain part of our viewership are just here to see [original series characters] Jessie and Slater kiss.”
There are practical reasons for cast expansion, too: The more cast members, the more different combinations of characters, a necessity for serialized storytelling. And a larger cast allows an ensemble to share the workload so a show’s lead doesn’t burn out.
A larger cast also provides padding that makes it easier for shows to kill off characters, a more frequently used plot device today than it was 40 years ago.
“The expectation now is every now and again you’re going to have to kill someone off and you need to have a big enough cast to be able to do that,” Thompson says. “With ‘Starsky and Hutch’ you could not kill off Starsky or Hutch.”
And a larger cast can be a way to add more depth to a character. When creating CBS’ new version of “The Equalizer,” executive producers Andrew W. Marlowe and Terri Edda Miller (“Castle”) say the larger cast of seven — the original 1985-89 series had, at most, three series regulars and often just one — was a way to fill out the emotional world of the lead, Robyn McCall (Queen Latifah).
“Having an equalizer, somebody who helps people find justice, is all about the community, and if we gave her community, it would give our audience other people to relate to, that they can have a personal stake in it for one reason or another,” Miller says. Marlowe says this iteration of “The Equalizer,” which premiered in early 2021 and quickly became a ratings success, while still solving a case of the week, has additional, secondary story threads that arc over multiple episodes in keeping with viewer demands.
“Audiences are expecting shows to [offer] a richer, more complicated emotional experience than what was on television 30 years ago,” says Marlowe. “Audiences are just becoming much more discerning and sophisticated because of the amount of programming that has come their way, because of the level of complicated storytelling that they’re used to seeing on the streaming services and cable.”
Syracuse University’s Thompson notes TV’s efforts to showcase diverse characters that are more representative of the U.S. population is another reason for cast expansion and “Equalizer” star Queen Latifah cited the change in gender and race of the title character as a reason to do the reboot.
“We knew we could tell this story in a different way from … a Black woman’s perspective in America, who is a parent,” she said in January 2021 during CBS’s portion of the Television Critics Association virtual press tour. “Unlike Denzel [Washington’s movie] version and unlike the original version, those characters were much more stoic, much more closed off, much more guarded. [The reboot] character doesn’t have that luxury. She has a teenage daughter. She’s got to figure out how to turn off the soldier in her and turn on the mom.”
Finally, Thompson says a larger cast gives viewers more options for reasons to watch.
“Demographically it make sense to have a larger cast because it gives you the potential of having any number of different characters to appeal to an audience that may otherwise not have liked the show,” he says. “If you didn’t like Telly Savalas as Kojak, you didn’t watch ‘Kojak.’”