An anthology series, which tells a different story in each episode or season, is certainly not a new concept to television. Even in the 1950s this form proved popular: The Twilight Zone is perhaps the most famous and influential example, and its popularity has seen it undergo multiple revival attempts, for better or for worse. However, in the last ten years or so, there has been a wave of new, original anthology shows, the majority of which have achieved success both critically and commercially.
Fargo, Black Mirror and American Horror Story, to name a few, are some of the most renowned and established anthology shows, known particularly for their quality drama and high ratings. However, their appeal is not just limited to the audience, as A-list actors often become interested in working on projects that do not require multiseason commitments, and that are often artistic and cinematic (and provide a good salary). Attaching big names, such as Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in the first season of True Detective, or Ewan McGregor and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the third season of Fargo, increases the marketability and hence furthers the success of the show.
Making the decision to start watching a series that has ten seasons of 20 episodes each can be a daunting task, as it requires a serious investment of time and effort to keep up with every storyline and character, as well as a need for some level of perseverance to make it through the unavoidably slower parts. Arguably, an anthology series is without this barrier. If each episode or season can be viewed in isolation, a new viewer might find it more accessible as they have greater freedom in what they watch and how much, especially because these shows can even be seen out of order. They can stop watching after one season and still feel satisfied because they have experienced a complete story.
Another plus of this format is that the viewer need not even start at the beginning, instead perhaps following the recommendation of a friend to watch a certain season first, or even allowing the critical response to dictate their choice. For instance, the second season of American Horror Story is generally considered one of the best, and therefore might be an alternate gateway for a new viewer wanting to get into the show. In addition, the shorter form of telling a story in an arc of ten episodes – or around that – requires a concision and focus that often benefits the final product.
Creatively, an anthology series grants the showrunners greater flexibility. They are not tied down to the same single story, setting, or group of characters, and therefore run less of a risk of going stale, a fate which has befallen many shows which were initially very promising, such as The Walking Dead. Consequently, they may even be able to broach a range of genres, as might be considered the case with the sci-fi/horror/dark-comedy/ drama/satire of Black Mirror, and in the process, attract a wider audience. What’s more, by returning to a completely clean slate before writing a new season, there is a greater possibility to create stories that are relevant to current-affairs and recent socio-political issues, whereas a conventional show would have greater difficulty in adapting to cover new topics as this would require a nuanced change in direction in order not to be too brash.
The tide of anthology shows does not seem to be dying down any time soon: in September last year we saw the release of “Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams”, while “American Crime Story” has recently aired its second season, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” (see page 25 for preview). We are currently experiencing a so-called ‘‘Golden Age of Television’’, and it may be that the rise of anthology shows has spawned from this; they have provided some of the best television in recent history. Alternatively, the trend may have helped to establish this ‘‘Golden Age’’ due to the creation of successful, original intellectual property, and, if this era continues, we will likely see more truly brilliant anthology shows.