A great ensemble creates a mysterious bond between a show and its viewers. The chemistry shared on screen brings with it a certain level of comfort.
But to refer to this quality as some kind of supernatural power does a disservice to the men and women who forge it. There is the talent of each individual performer to consider: If any of them falter, the whole dynamic falls apart. It’s a dynamic that requires work, too. Whether it’s bonding in real-life or being a good listener on set, chemistry is a science for these casts; it’s made, not found.
Then there’s the versatility of expanding these connections beyond just one or two cast members, but an entire ensemble of six or so series regulars. The best ensembles work no matter who’s paired up in a scene, and it feels like the TV can barely contain them when the cast all comes together.
With that in mind, we gathered some of the best of these groups from the past quarter century. To help narrow down the scope, we did set a few extra rules. For simplicity’s sake, we kept this particular list to American productions (otherwise, programs like “The IT Crowd” and “Peep Show” would have been a shoo-in). We also ruled out sketch shows (the only reason “The Dana Carvey Show” isn’t in the upper ranks).
But what really makes an ensemble stand out is how they elevate the material by themselves. No show discussed below would have been better with different actors. These people weren’t expendable. They proved integral to the series’ success and became more than just the faces of a show: They’re its spirit, too.
25. “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”
As the show continued in the tradition of workplace comedies with some of the same creative teams behind them, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” had the added pressure of not being a rehash of “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.” But a nimble ensemble not only helped to separate the show from the rest of the network sitcom pack, it also flipped the cop show formula on its head. Andy Samberg carried over his Lonely Island charm to an ongoing workplace comedy, but “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” has always given an even spread to the other precinct employees: Melissa Fumero’s perpetually ambitious Santiago, Chelsea Peretti’s unapologetic Gina, Stephanie Beatriz’s imposing Diaz, and Joe Lo Truglio’s fumbling sophisticant Boyle have all enjoyed their share of featured episodes amidst the day-to-day exploits of the department. And Terry Crews flexing his comedy muscles is its own particular delight. The glue that holds the entire show together? Andre Braugher’s textbook deadpan perfection as Captain Holt, proof that the best comedy collaborations don’t cut all their same contributions from the same stylistic cloth.
24. “Master of None”
As a writer/creator/star, Aziz Ansari broke new ground by depicting an average Indian American citizen as a romantic lead on TV. This inclusive rarity is only part of one of the most diverse casts in a TV comedy. Dev’s pals are a Taiwanese guy named Brian (Kelvin Yu), black lesbian Denise (Lena Waithe), a token white friend (Eric Wareheim), and Ansari’s real-life parents to add verisimilitude to Dev’s parents. The beauty of the cast is how natural their interactions are — whether it’s long-winded banter, awkward parental conversations, or goofy Instagram photo sessions — and just how charming that can be. The cast rarely works as a single group: These stories are told between two or three people at most. But it’s that intermittent moving in and out of focus that truly highlights how they gel when they get a chance to work off of each other.
23. “How I Met Your Mother”
When you have nine seasons to explore five characters, you not only get a chance to delve into every possible relationship, but uncover the hidden skills of its cast. “How I Met Your Mother” unveiled Josh Radnor’s inner goofiness, Alyson Hannigan’s punchline chops, Jason Segel’s musical talents, Cobie Smulders’ bad-assery, and Neil Patrick Harris’s capacity for emotional depth. However you feel about the show’s ultimate conclusion, the best moments of “How I Met Your Mother” were always rooted in the ensemble’s “found family” feel, one built upon a well-developed history for its characters and chemistry that never failed to spark.
22. “The League”
To put it bluntly, without its likable cast “The League” would have been pretty unwatchable. But for seven seasons, we delighted in watching the men (and woman) of a fantasy football league screw each other over in the name of the Shiva because Stephen Rannazzisi, Nick Kroll, Paul Scheer, Mark Duplass, Katie Aselton, and Jon Lajoie made it fun. With impeccable chemistry that made the show’s largely improvised style sing, “The League” made us believe that the cast — most of whom have also had rich and vibrant careers over the last several years — actually were long-time high school friends living in Chicago, ruining each others’ lives.
21. “The Mindy Project”
Unabashedly shallow yet confident, there’s a lightness to Dr. Mindy Lahiri that made her an instant, lovable classic. The co-stars that orbit her bring plenty of twinkle to their portrayals that run the gamut from strangely curmudgeonly to over-the-top goofy. Chris Messina, Ike Barinholtz, Ed Weeks, Beth Grant, and Xosha Roquemore have proven to be game and up for any oddball storyline that would come their way, managing to bounce off each other’s kooky qualities seamlessly. Their versatility has been tested time and time again with recent additions like Garrett Dillahunt and Fortune Feimster, frequent guest stars like Adam Pally or with the many guest stars like Anders Holm or Ryan Hansen that drop by. No matter what new folks entered the fray of Mindy’s life, the series continued to be delightfully entertaining.
Continue reading for the Top 20 best comedy ensembles of the past 25 years.