When Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story” premiered in 2011, FX wasn’t just gambling on TV’s return to horror; it was also taking a risk by revisiting the abandoned anthology structure first popularized in the 1950s and ’60s. When that one-two punch resonated with viewers and forged the path for such awards-circuit favorites as “Fargo” and HBO’s “True Detective,” it seemed as if the format had been officially reborn. Fast forward to today and most broadcast networks, cablers and OTT providers count at least one anthology on their slate. But where anthologies once implied season-long storytelling, it is becoming increasingly more popular to produce episodic anthologies, such as Netflix’s “Black Mirror” or the upcoming “Modern Love” for Amazon.
“As the business has moved more to brand and the value of that brand from a subscriber standpoint — whether it’s someone who subscribes to your channel via big bundle or a direct-to-consumer basis — there’s a lot of brand value to a variety of programming and shows that aren’t necessarily long-running drama series,” says Eric Schrier, president of original programming for FX Networks and FX Prods.
When Murphy pitched “American Horror Story,” Schrier’s team committed to making the economics work in order to support the creative, a strategy that paid off with subsequent projects such as “Fargo” and “American Crime Story.” The exec admits he’s seen an increase in limited series pitches in subsequent years, especially as filmmakers and traditional big-screen stars flock to television.
When “True Detective” hit the circuit in 2014, it became synonymous with marquee stars once Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson were on board. By the time the second season began casting, plenty of ink was spilled as speculation over which big-name actors would star in the show flooded headlines.
“If you don’t have a good story or a compelling product, I don’t think people necessarily stick around just to see a movie star on TV,” says “True Detective” creator Nic Pizzolatto. “In the initial offering, it almost certainly benefits to have that level of talent commanding people’s interests. Even so, in five years since Season 1, we’ve seen a lot of movie stars migrate to television for a season and now it’s no longer a novelty.”
The short time commitment can aid in attracting top-tier talent, as can having a complete arc for their characters. In that way, anthologies are more akin to film offers than any other television. The pieces are standalone stories that tie together because of a larger theme. In Amazon’s “The Romanoffs,” for example, the central characters in each episode believed that they were descendants of the doomed Russian royal family. That series, from Matthew Weiner, boasted cast members that included Aaron Eckhart, Christina Hendricks, Noah Wyle, Amanda Peet and Diane Lane.
Following in its footsteps, “Modern Love,” from showrunner John Carney, carries a theme of romantic comedy based on the weekly New York Times column and will feature the likes of Anne Hathaway, Tina Fey, Catherine Keener and Andy Garcia.
“It’s five days in New York and it’s not a lot of work and you don’t have to worry about where your story arc is going or where your character is going,” Carney says. “That seemed to open up the playing field a lot for us because we were a small show.”
Such flexibility with production schedules, as well as a chance to pop into an out-of-the-box character, also proved to be a draw for CBS All Access and Jordan Peele’s re-imagined “The Twilight Zone.”
“Actors like Kumail Nanjiani and Adam Scott could come in and do episodes where they got to really flex the acting muscles that they don’t normally get to do in the roles they typically get,” says “The Twilight Zone” executive producer Audrey Chon.
The same tonal challenges of season-long anthologies apply on an episodic level as creatives attempt to deliver fresh fare to viewers with a common thread weaving the series together as a whole. Whether that be through returning actors or the show’s overall vibe, setting that tone with each installment is vital.
“By making an anthology television series you’re really sacrificing a lot of the superpowers of television [such as] cliffhangers and the love viewers have with characters and the momentum of storytelling,” says “Twilight Zone” executive producer Win Rosenfeld. “The promise you’re making to the audience is that every one of these episodes, which are essentially self-contained movies, is going to be worth your while. And moreover it’s even more difficult because you still want to make sure that your show is a cohesive show — that it doesn’t feel like 10 random short films that have been plucked together that are vaguely related. It’s important that mood, tone, structure, Easter eggs were all there, and that we had a connectivity that came from something other than season-long arcs and the momentum of one large sprawling story.”
Rosenfeld also worked on YouTube’s episodic anthology “Weird City” under Peele’s same Monkeypaw Prods. banner.
Yet season-long anthologies must still carry a common theme across seasons, in addition to episodes within a season.
“The franchise of the show is true crime but also love gone wrong,” says “Dirty John” showrunner Alexandra Cunningham.
The first season of her Bravo anthology focused on con man John Meehan and his final victim, Debra Newell, but the upcoming second season, she says, will carry a lot of common threads.
“There’s a woman who’s central to the story, but it’s a completely different kind of story. I do think that what happens to her, again like last season, is at least partially due to societal conditioning and the roles of women. She’s still coming from the same place of the weight of expectations and the attitude of what love ‘should’ be and what romance means and all of that kind of stuff.”
When done right, Carney believes that anthology series — especially on the episodic level — are antidotes to today’s heavily serialized shows, especially from a creative standpoint. Not only is there less burden to map through a flawless season as eagle-eyed viewers marathon the fare in single sessions, but there’s also less pressure to pump out extended seasons each year. Instead, writers are increasingly being given more time to conceptualize the stories they want to tell, with larger time gaps in between seasons.
“You have to map your brand of a show like ‘Fargo,’ but you don’t have to necessarily produce it on a year-over-year basis if you can follow the creative,” says Schrier. “One of the tenets of our success is to follow the creative rather than letting the business drive the creative. It’s about letting the creative drive the business and figuring out how to hold the business around that.”