Anthology series are back and, apparently, are here to stay for at least some years. But why is this format, practically unused for the last two decades, back again in television’s front line?
This formula presents a structure in which each episode offers a self-contained plot that is usually erased, overwritten, by the next instance. Therefore, paradigmatic examples of these palimpsests could be grouped into a same series due to mainly a central idea, theme or genre that unified every single episode, we just need to think of the relation between the classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the mystery/thriller genre. The anthologies could be described, then, as a continuous variation on a single theme, an imperfect repetition. Here a question arises, why are not procedural shows, such as CSI or The Mentalist, with their ‘case of the week’ considered anthologies? Well, it seems like resetting the plot is not enough to join the club, a change of focus is also compulsory (let’s think about the American Horror Story seasons) and the same set of characters resolving crimes every week doesn’t comply with this rule.
Nowadays, TV shows are in their
second third, who knows anymore, golden era, at their peak both in form and content and it is in this positive momentum that series creators and show-runners start paying attention and experimenting with new forms of serialization beyond the dichotomy serie/serial. It’s in this context that the new anthology is born, a narration that fuses the virtues of both serie and serial. Think about American Horror Story with serialized episodes but independent seasons. The same happens with True Detective or the not yet released Fargo. The three of them offer a variation of a theme or leitmotifs (recycled well-known horror stories, a pair of detectives and small townness aspects) but pressing the reset button each season. Then we have another way of thinking the anthology where every episode works independently but where the hardcore viewer is rewarded. Think, for example, in Dates where we see a couple’s first date in each episode but where some of the characters that fail in their first attempt return in later rendezvous. We can’t forget either Arrested Development‘s fourth season with standalone episodes focused on a single character but where the complex puzzle it formed only came completely together once we saw the rest of the season (several times) and found the missing links. The exception to this new forms of understanding anthologies comes with Black Mirror, classical from a structural point of view, with no connections at all between episodes beyond their main theme, technological dystopian immediate futures, although, unsurprisingly, one of the precursors of this format’s resurrection (and the oldest mentioned in this article, 2011).
As we have mentioned, this format pleases the networks since it can generate faithful viewers as well as attract new ones each time they restart their universe, whether is episodically or seasonally. However, I like to think this is not a smart marketing move but the beginning of a storytelling revolution, the next step after the quality and form ones. Lines are blurring as the new anthologies prove and soon this classification will become untenable. This fact, together with other factors such as new media (with Arrested Development structure as their flagship), is changing television series forever. As Amanda Lotz predicted in 2007 on her book’s title “Television will be revolutionized”, in 2014 the revolution has already begun.