Television has changed. Old news, right? In so many ways the landscape, globally, has moved from the seasonal twenty-four episode model, released on hugely expensive VHS tapes with probably around ten to twelve genuinely good episodes and half a season of filler. Television has not just grown more expensive, to make and watch, but it’s become more elite and contained. Ten to thirteen episodes are now the standard, and with the advent of streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu or Amazon not being constrained by advertising and network restraints, they have no recourse to make long, cheap seasons with peaks and troughs in quality.
The change has also led to the return, and rise, of the anthology TV series.
We have two brand new series in this sub-genre arriving in the Autumn. Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams premiered just last week, made by Channel 4 in the UK and specifically adapting short stories by the pioneering science-fiction author for the small screen with an eclectic cast, then in mid-October from Amazon we get Lore, adapted from Aaron Mahnke’s supremely popular podcast where he tells creepy, haunting tales of folklore. Given the plethora of anthology-based shows which have taken off over the last few years, the omens are excellent that both of these shows will find a dedicated audience; Dick’s novels are beloved by critics and hardcore fans alike, while Mahnke’s show is riding the wave of the podcast boom in the past several years.
What’s the draw with anthology series in this new TV world? Chiefly, the wonderful ability to tell a contained story. Look at Fargo, Noah Hawley’s critically beloved adaptation of the Coen Brothers’ 1996 classic quirky crime drama; Hawley over three well-regarded series reeled in major TV and cinematic talent such as Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, Kirsten Dunst, Ewan McGregor and was able not just to change the entire cast each year and start over, but even set the action in a different era, thereby keeping a sense of thematic resonance but altering the tone and feel. American Horror Story, slick and almost trashy-scare as it is, allows Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchiuk to do the same, even if they keep a retinue of recurring players each year. Et voila – the same series but a different, reinvented show every year.
Let’s face it, as a viewer, are you more likely to tune into a show with a contained, told story over one thirteen episode season, or start at the beginning of a seven-season, one hundred episode plus saga? In this day and age, you’re most likely going to pick Feud, eight episodes of Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon battling it out as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, than watching Castle from the beginning. With so much digital media at our fingertips, the shorter and more accessible the TV show, the better, and anthology series really scratch that itch.
This is nothing new, of course. Anthology shows are as old as modern television itself, indeed many of them set the mould for the kind of TV that ended up moving away from that model into more serialised frameworks – Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Tales From the Crypt, the list goes on. Many of those shows had multiple reimaginings over the years, be they new TV series or movie adaptations, and they focused on telling a new story each week. Shows like American Crime Story, which hit big time last year telling the O.J. Simpson trial saga, indulged the serialised nature of one, season-long story, but honestly the anthology resurgence has been a fairly equal divide – for every Fargo, you get a Black Mirror, telling standalone tales in the age-old formula.
Black Mirror indeed would be cited by many as a modern Twilight Zone, tapping into the post-millennial anxieties of a digital age out of control, and this is another draw for the anthology genre: stories can be told which tap into current affairs, be they political or sociological, in a manner much harder to do in long-running shows about specific, developing characters. Not all shows have to do this, of course; Inside No. 9, for example (one of the finest anthology shows on TV, by the way), is happy to tell twisted, darkly comic cautionary tales with a grotesque Gothic sheen. But anthology series have more freedom to experiment, to change up the style of their storytelling, to attract bigger stars in front of and behind the camera for a shorter period of time.
So are they TV gold? Right now, perhaps. Streaming networks especially are making more and more in-roads back into this genre (though Channel 4 clearly learned their lesson giving up Black Mirror to Netflix, who threw masses of money at Charlie Brooker, by commissioning Electric Dreams), evidenced by more and more one-shot series coming into existence. Will Lore be the next American Horror Story? Who knows? A lot depends on the quality of the work and the chord it manages to strike, but it’s further indication anthology shows could be the major wave of the future.
The question is… what’s the next hit to take TV by storm?
What do you think? Are you a fan of anthology series? Let us know!