Cast Downsizing

When an “on the bubble” show gets renewed, one condition for its renewal is usually that it will have a lower budget. (In case you’re wondering, for example, why most of the final season of Angel took place in offices.) And the surest way to cut the budget is to whittle the cast down from “huge” to merely “really, really big.” And so it is with Friday Night Lights; it was announced today that showrunner Jason Katims will be demoting two of the regulars, Smash (Gaius Charles) and Jason (Scott Porter) to “recurring” status. They will appear when the writers wrap up their stories, but they will not appear or be paid on a regular basis.

The announcement says that this is for “both budgetary and creative reasons,” and I think that’s right, but I also think that the impetus to downsize the cast usually starts with the budgetary reasons. Then, needing to reduce the size of the cast, the producers naturally try to cut the characters whose departure might actually help the show, or at least not hurt it much. Jason and Smash were obvious choices because their storylines were basically over and they had no good reason to interact with the other characters. Jason in particular is a well-known example of Potsie Syndrome as manifested in serialized drama shows: his story arc was really important in the first season, but what do you do with him a year later, when that arc has played itself out?

Of course, while you constantly hear rumours about shows making cast cuts to keep the budget down, it’s very rare that a TV producer will actually admit that this is what’s going on. (This is why the announcement about FNL’s cast downsizing is being done through leaks to a gossip column, rather than, say, a press release.) Other businesses openly admit that they’re laying people off to keep operating costs down, but it would be awkward for a TV producer to say that actor X had to go to save his salary — not to mention demoralizing to the rest of the cast. And in the modern drama series it’s much easier to disguise these budget-related cast layoffs, because today’s dramas thrive on having characters suddenly leave or vanish. If a Law and Order show drops somebody or downgrades them to recurring status, we tend to get suspicious, but if a serialized show does it, we may never know where the creative decisions leave off and the budgetary decisions begin. Maybe, this being show business, creative and business decisions overlap and aren’t easily distinguishable.

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