Anthology television: the comeback of continually evolving shows

Image: ssinside
Image: ssinside
Image: ssinside

Anthology television, which entails the telling of a different story and setting each episode or season, was a prominent form of small screen storytelling for most of the twentieth century, but its popularity faded in the world of serialised dramas.

Today, however, anthologies are undergoing a renaissance. They attract an increasing number of viewers and promise filmmakers a chance to experiment. Alfred Hitchcock Presents ran for ten seasons between 1955-65 and featured the acclaimed director as the host of more than 350 horror shorts. Tales from the Crypt was a similar comedic take on the genre, while the iconic Twilight Zone outgrew its potential by becoming a cult classic and inspiring a generation of filmmakers. Decades have passed since the height of these shows’ popularity. What, then, is behind the increasing visibility of anthology shows today?

The current anthology trend can be traced back to two shows that aired in the 2011 fall season: Black Mirror and American Horror Story. The former opened on Channel 4 in the UK and is currently the 55th top rated TV show on IMDb, even with only seven episodes to date. Many have compared Black Mirror to The Twilight Zone due to its unique take on the sci-fi genre. Mad Men star Jon Hamm (who appeared in the show’s 2014 Christmas special) told The Independent, “I think [Black Mirror] speaks to there being a bit of a hole in the creative market- place, and I can’t think of anything really like this since The Twilight Zone […] That kind of storytelling and creative originality is sorely missed.”

Creative originality is indeed becoming increasingly repressed by lacklustre premises and mass-produced, uninspired programmes. Note the recent reboots of Rush Hour and MacGyver, which no one really asked for and were panned by critics.

This lack of originality has been partly rectified by the popularity of streaming network originals, where the creators are usually provided more creative freedom than on cable television. Not only can Netflix cite mass successes like Stranger Things, House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, but it has also become a beacon for ill-fated cancelled shows. Such is the case with Black Mirror, as Netflix has managed to outbid Channel 4 and acquire the rights for the show’s up-coming third season.

Like Black Mirror’s growing fan base, Netflix has recognised the potential of the anthology. What makes this style more promising than procedural dramas or sitcoms with familiar premises is its intrigue, sharp social commentary and versatile artistic visualisation of a relevant issue. The anthology requires low commitment from its audience, as each new story meets its resolution within the 60-minute time mark. This format also proves enticing for better-known filmmakers to squeeze the production of an episode into their busy schedules. For example, directors James Watkins (The Woman in Black), Joe Wright (Atonement) and Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) have all signed on to direct in Black Mirror’s third season.

2011 also saw the release of FX’s immensely popular American Horror Story. AHS has spooked audiences with several horror settings, from an insane asylum to a witch coven and a hotel. The show has a strong pulling power among actors and now has a regular cast comprising A-listers such as Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett. AHS has also helped relatively unknown talents such as Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters rise to stardom.

While the concept of changing themes every season is intriguing enough to get viewers hooked, constant controversy also boosts American Horror Story’s appeal. Creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk keep dividing critics and audiences with their lavish filmmaking style; some see the show as a non-stop thrill ride, while others believe its proclivity for excess outweighs plot substance.

Facebook is often flooded by posts in which fans attempt to rank the show’s seasons and debate its quality. This would certainly not work with a linear storyline; unpleasant twists, a weak story or poor writing can easily lead to a loss of viewers and eventually cancellation. AHS, however, has something new to offer every year. Fiery debates and excellent marketing assuredly spark interest, even if some consider the show gimmicky.

The anthology trend has since spawned several successful shows. True Detective’s first season left critics and audiences in awe with its gritty take on the “whodunit” format. Fargo is a surprising and outstanding needle in a haystack of remakes and reboots. Scream Queens is a horror comedy side-project of the creative minds behind American Horror Story, and American Crime Story proved this year’s surprise hit with nine Emmys for its first season, subtitled The People v. O.J. Simpson.

Expect more shows with standalone seasons in upcoming years: Black Mirror is getting a US remake, and Universal Cable Productions has announced an updated Alfred Hitchcock anthology. Prepare to extend your late-night binge sessions and immerse yourself in the abundance of choice.


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