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‘True Detective,’ ‘American Horror Story’ and Why the Anthology Series is All the Rage

'True Detective,' 'American Horror Story' and Why the Anthology Series is All the Rage

The television landscape is changing, thanks to the growing influence of cable and the rise of new platforms like Netflix. Programming’s taking place year-round, seasons are getting shorter, higher profile actors are taking small screen roles — and lately a new model has arisen that dares to revolutionize the life of a narrative.

FX’s “American Horror Story,” the upcoming “Fargo” and HBO’s ongoing “True Detective” are at the forefront of the recent rise of the season-at-a-time anthology series. Each season of these series presents a new story with new characters and a new cast that may or may not include returning members. These shows seek to elevate the perennial reboot beyond the ever more pejorative “sequels” and “spinoffs.” Given our shifting viewing habits and the surge in inventive scripted content, the season-long anthology is especially suited to the TV of today.

The anthology in pop culture is rooted in genres such as horror, mystery and science fiction. Its origins range from 1930s-era radio programs to TV classics like “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Twilight Zone,” which famously told bizarre standalone stories. So it’s fitting that the aforementioned cable shows are the first out of the gate in adopting this new format in the U.S.

Here’s why the new wave of anthologies benefits the writers, the viewers and the cast.

  • Anthologies tell shorter stories with set end points. Reality TV competitions may be able to crown a winner after a few months, but a narrative can’t be as perfunctory with its arcs and twists. There’s the hope among showrunners that the third act of a season can now be a more fully realized anchor of their vision than ever before. Shows canceled at the end of or middle of a season don’t have this luxury, and we’ve all seen plot-heavy series that have had to keep their ultimate finale in sight but always at a distance. What if the end were to come quicker, and at a point everyone’s aware of from the start? Theoretically all three acts should be weighed equally. In an increasingly auteur-driven medium, the season-long anthology format is a boon to the maker. Divisively ambiguous endings are certainly not off the table, but the story being told each season will be a complete one.
  • It’s easier to binge-watch, and therefore compatible with the fastest-growing style of TV consumption. 10 episodes in a Netflix queue is obviously a less daunting sum than 100 or 200. For years, one of the primary tests of a network drama or comedy has been to last. You would watch characters evolve over the years as you do the same. Then, “Breaking Bad” came along, charted one man’s metamorphosis from good to bad over five years, and people preferred to down it in weeks.
  • As Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey proved by boarding “True Detective,” the anthology is more enticing to stars who don’t want to make a possibly years-long commitment of the type a more traditional format demands. The TV talent pool is deeper than ever before, with the revolving door from the film side ever in motion. The production process isn’t much different than breaking away to make a movie for several weeks. The Duplass brothers have compared shooting an eight-episode season of upcoming HBO comedy series “Togetherness” to shooting an indie film like “Cyrus,” in that they both lasted about 40 days.

McConaughey is the prime example of a movie star at a career peak making his TV series debut. He has said that he is open to returning, though presumably not as the same downbeat detective. Jessica Lange keeps popping up on “American Horror Story,” having portrayed a witch, a nun and a crazy neighbor, respectively. She revealed in October her plans to retire from acting after the fourth season, likely airing this fall.

A greater fluidity between seasons can be a creative liberty for showrunners, allowing them to fix an aspect of a show before it is technically broken. But then what, besides the title, makes a show recognizable in its many iterations, if not story or characters? If TV is often referred to a writer’s medium, the new anthology seems the foremost proof of that, having the creative forces behind a series and its themes as the continuing element tying each season together.

Although TV networks are ramping up their limited-series runs — like FOX with the 13-episode first season of “Sleepy Hollow” — the intention with anthologies is to make them anything but limiting in scope. “True Detective” creator Nic Pizzolatto said he sees crime as essentially a broad thread connecting the seasons. “There could be a season that’s much more of a widespread conspiracy thriller, a season that’s a small town murder mystery, a season where nobody is murdered and it’s a master criminal versus a rogue detective or something,” Pizzolatto explained at the Television Critics Association winter press tour last month.

The evocative atmosphere and enigmatic tone are standout traits of “True Detective.” Pizzolatto might not want to alter the mood much, though he could stand to dial back the nihilism.

Given these parameters, “American Horror Story” and other anthology shows are able to time-leap to any period they want for a particular season. And they can span years, as a film would with ease. Australia has had a hit in “Underbelly,” a similarly formatted fact-based crime drama in which each of its six seasons to date has chronicled roughly one decade of the Melbourne drug war.

This format also changes the qualifications for “jumping the shark,” but doesn’t exactly eradicate them. 

“If [“American Horror Story”] is on for a decade, I can’t imagine that’s going to continue every year. He’s eventually going to make something that’s going to be weaker than the previous season,” FX Networks CEO John Landgraf said at the TCA tour, regarding co-creator Ryan Murphy. “And I don’t think that matters because one of the things that’s exciting about the form is that every year it’s a new opportunity to sell a new set of characters in a new setting and a new tone to the audience. They might love one and not love the next, and they might love the next.”

“Fargo,” premiering April 15th on FX, will feature Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Colin Hanks, Bob Odenkirk and others in a 10-episode Minnesota-set crime story that evokes the Coen brothers’ 1996 film. Should it be a hit and brought back for another season, it’ll feature a new tale of “true” crime. In the eyes of series creator Noah Hawley, the Coens’ darkly comic feature would in the end represent just one of many yarns to be spun on this theme. A more conventional reprise of “Fargo” would probably follow Marge Gunderson as she solves mysteries in between Arby’s runs. This new series attempts a trickier approach in carrying over the essence of the source material, with none of the original characters.

Despite all the speculating over newfound freedom with the form, a series’ survival remains just as important. It’s still vulnerable to ratings, reviews, buzz and other external factors, like its more by-the-book contemporaries. Making it to a sophomore season is the first step to even qualifying it as an anthology. Then, future seasons determine how it will fare at that. The power to hit the reset button and shape-shift year after year is an experiment in pushing an idea to the outer bounds while retaining some semblance of a cohesive work.

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