In the last year, we saw a new trend sweeping TVs and streaming devices everywhere. In the hodgepodge of TV programs, the anthology officially rose to prominence. This mode of storytelling got adopted left and right, sending ripples in the Hollywood pond. Why are anthologies so hot? What do they offer that the average program can’t touch?
An anthology series is a show that starts over every season with a new cast and new story in a new setting. Every season adheres to a common theme, told in a new light. “American Horror Story” on FX is the most prominent example. Their theme is pretty self-explanatory: all the different manifestations of American horror stories. The first season revolved around a house. The second explored supernatural occurrences in an asylum. Next came “American Horror Story: Coven,” a tale of witches in the South. The season that just ended is “American Horror Story: Freak Show,” which promised to be colorful and delivered on that promise — to what extent is a topic of debate, though. They have settled on an enormous topic and taken each season to expand and expand on the idea.
Why does this work? An anthology can always stay fresh. With new plots, cast and antagonists each season the story will, if nothing else, be able to grow and develop coming off each season without the constraints of past story lines. That’s an enormous freedom, especially if something hasn’t been working. All shows are a long road of trial and error, but anthologies don’t have to live with their mistakes.
HBO’s original show “True Detective” garnered an immediate and passionate reception buoyed, not just by Nic Pizzolatto’s stellar script, but by two very committed performances by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. The average show doesn’t often land a Hollywood A-list star in the year he wins an Oscar. HBO did just that. How? By offering an anthology. “True Detective” operated like a show, but it was only eight episodes, which makes it long enough to be a series but short enough to attract serious talent without making anyone feel trapped in a role for years to come. That expiration date is one reason Season One of “True Detective”soared — its finite nature.
Most classic television shows aim to present characters that are enthralling and magnetic with the kinds of stories that leave you desperate to tune in next week. It’s an emotional investment that can make some shows last for many years. Anthologies take another route entirely. They present a vision made up of motifs and tropes. Even when the story changes, the look and feel stays the same. It’s a gamble, but sometimes it pays off.
Anthologies have been around since the days of radio. This new resurgence doesn’t even scratch the surface in terms of what is possible. To quote Rod Serling, the creator of “The Twilight Zone,” the greatest anthology series ever, “Imagination… its limits are only those of the mind itself.” Let’s see what the anthology has in store for viewers in 2015.