The news that Omar from The Wire (aka Michael K. Williams) will be a Special Guest Professor on Community is part of a recent pattern of Wire actors getting parts on comedies: The Office, of course, helped to kick-start it by signing up Amy Ryan and Idris Elba, and over on Fox a new sitcom has a part for Chad Coleman.
It occurs to me that actors from The Wire, while they no doubt have their struggles to get work like every other actor, are in a sweeter-than-usual spot than other supporting actors from long-running series. Usually there’s a trade-off for the great gift of being on a show that runs five years, and it’s type-casting. If the actor isn’t the star, he or she isn’t going to be flooded with offers, and type-casting will close off some of the potential jobs. But The Wire was never very widely watched, so most of the actors aren’t especially type-cast. And the show has become wildly popular within the industry, particularly among showrunners. Producers are on the lookout for Wire actors because they loved the show so much, and there’s no barrier to casting them in a comedy or in parts that (like Amy Ryan’s on The Wire) aren’t very similar to their drama work.
Something similar may have happened with many of the actors from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, who are in demand among showrunners – particularly younger showrunners – without being particularly famous to the general public. (Those shows were more widely viewed than The Wire, but they were never huge hits.) The stars may be somewhat type-cast, or maybe there’s an inherent amount of type-casting involved when you have to look for star parts. But the supporting players can easily go from comedy to drama and back again, or to different types of TV parts, because much of the How I Met Your Mother audience does not look at Alison Hannigan and think of her as Willow.
I’m not saying every actor from a cult show will avoid being type-cast, nor am I saying that nobody from a hit like Lost gets to do a different type of show. But a cult show is a great talent pool, because it offers an assortment of actors who have a) proven themselves to be really good, and b) don’t yet have the kind of instant recognition that would cause a casting director to reject them out of hand for a certain part. I’m sure it’s not a big advantage, but it might help a little.
Speaking of The Wire, Parks & Recreation‘s Mike Schur (formerly of The Office), a big Wire fan who has mentioned that show’s influence, tells Todd VanDerWerff that they probably went too far with the Wire connections at the beginning – not casting, but thematic connections:
I think our show got much better when we stopped trying to let The Wire, for example, influence the way that we told our stories. A lot of the promotional material from before we even shot the pilot, we used a lot of terminology like “bureaucracy” and “red tape” and “frustration” and “impossibility,” because that’s what we imagined the show was going to try to represent: one woman’s march against that tide. I think it got a lot better when we made it instead of focusing on the calcified system of the government, we focused on the woman who was trying to break that up and to improve the town. And I think that is probably the breakthrough that we had. Let’s not spend 80 percent of the time talking about how frustrating it is and 20 percent of the time showing Leslie fighting it. Let’s flip that ratio and focus on the sunny, bright, optimistic, happy, funny character played by a once-in-a-generation comedienne, who is way more fun to watch than our internal depiction of the calcified system.
That being said, The Wire’s the best show ever.
And one more thing about the popularity of The Wire among showrunners is that someone uploaded iCarly‘s infamous homage to Snoop’s final scene. I mentioned this in a piece on iCarly creator Dan Schneider a few months back, as an example of how he gets parents to watch by throwing in little jokes for them (also, lots of dirty double entendres). But this one is almost an in-joke for the writers, and it’s always good to see the writers of a kids’ show throw in a shout-out to something they happen to like.