You may have heard that we have a lot of good television these days. As David Carr wrote in this 2014 column, “In the short span of five years, table talk has shifted, at least among the people I socialize with, from books and movies to television. The idiot box gained heft and intellectual credibility to the point where you seem dumb if you are not watching it.”
And in the space of prestige TV—that niche of expensive and critically acclaimed television, made for that niche of wealthy and critical audiences—you’re dumbest of all if you’re not hip to “anthology series,” a fancy-sounding name for a show that reboots its premise with some regularity. (Often, it switches up the actors, too, though that’s not a requirement.) It’s a phrase that gets used a lot today, but anthology series are nearly as old as television and haven’t gone anywhere, though they have changed quite a bit. The heyday of the anthology series was in the 1950s, when American audiences were looking for theater, literally, on television. There’s a lot to say on this topic—Stephen Bowie wrote an in-depth piece for the A.V. Club last year on “Playhouse 90,” a CBS anthology series that swept the Emmys in 1957 with its high quality, huge budget, and live broadcasts. PBS’ ongoing “Masterpiece Theatre” is an extension of this same desire to see plays enacted on television, except exhibited in installments, over the course of a few weeks or months. But it’s not just theater. Thrillers like the iconic “The Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”—and the decidedly less iconic Nickelodeon series “Are You Afraid Of The Dark?”—are also anthology series.
Like everything else TV does, the format is an attempt to snag a consistent audience. Some shows go for serialization (“Lost”) or even hyperserialization (“All My Children”) in order to keep an audience interested. The anthology series has a different angle; it promises a thrill or a chill, but is always mixing up the how. As a result, the viewing experience is shot through with a bit more tension; the audience can’t expect the same actors, relationships, or storylines that got them interested in the first place.
Currently, anthology miniseries represent a middle ground between film and television—even more of a middle ground than traditional prestige drama, which often stretched to five, six, or seven seasons. An anthology promises a collection of stories that definitively end, instead of trickle off; but it also promises eight or 10 or 12 installments of each story, to develop over a few months. The boundedness of the format means that movie stars like Matthew McConaughey, Felicity Huffman, and Jessica Lange can be drawn into starring roles without being tied to a years-long contract. It also means a viewer can join the show in season four and still watch a complete story. And as evidenced by how all four of the anthology miniseries on air right now are headed by distinctive showrunners, the format offers a canvas for an incredible exploration of style.
But though each one has had elements of brilliance, there isn’t one that is peerless — “True Detective”’s second season was a failure, “Fargo” has too many weird wannabe problems to be really great, “American Crime” is a bit too broadcast-network boring, and “American Horror Story” is out of its goddamn mind. That’s a lot of time and money spent on four shows when none of them are the next “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad.”
I think this is because each series is trying so hard to be relevant and popular, albeit in four rather different ways. Anthology miniseries have been packaged and presented as the next big thing for studios as well as audiences, and each one has its own tragic flaw. “True Detective,” the most well-known series, has the most romantic origin story possible—unknown writer Nic Pizzolatto creating a script on a shadow and a dream, and then somehow getting it noticed by A-lister Matthew McConaughey, who angled to play Rust Cohle and attracted fellow star Woody Harrelson to the project. “True Detective” was the subject of a bidding war in spring 2012, as HBO, Showtime, and FX battled over it. HBO, as we know, won this battle. Showtime stepped out of the anthology miniseries game. FX went on immediately to create “Fargo,” in a studio-driven creative process that is almost the exact opposite of Pizzolatto’s lonely scribbling. FX teamed up with MGM’s television arm to choose a movie to adapt into a series. The Coen Brothers’ cult hit “Fargo” was selected from a list.
It’s no wonder, then, that “True Detective”’s fiery appeal crashed and burned in season two, as the extremely inexperienced Pizzolatto made every second-season mistake in the book, along with taking some time for petty digs at critics, his former colleagues, and the industry at large. And it's similarly no wonder that “Fargo” has felt frustratingly derivative right from the start, as its well-compensated characters take on the Minnesotan accent that “Fargo,” the film, drew out from obscurity and lent charm through the studied musings of Frances McDormand.
Meanwhile, though “American Horror Story” is the show that inspired “True Detective”’s Nic Pizzolatto to build his spec script in anthology form, Ryan Murphy’s creation became an anthology series almost after the fact. The first season has been retroactively dubbed “Murder House,” but when the show debuted, FX didn’t package the show as an anthology—either hedging on the idea of a changing premise every season or worrying that audiences, confused by the format, might not tune in. When “American Horror Story” stuck with the anthology format—now in its fifth iteration, with “Hotel”—viewers and critics stuck with it, too, taken by both the wild gyrations of Murphy’s style and the incredible talent he drew to the show, including Lange, Kathy Bates, and Sarah Paulson. But the format has also exacerbated a lot of Murphy’s longstanding issues with continuity and character development, flattening the show into an hours-long music video.
And “American Crime,” on ABC, is good, but deadly earnest—after-school special earnest. The show boasts more focus on diversity than any of the other series—“American Horror Story” is a study in fantastic and diverse casting, but “American Crime” is saturated with the politics of race relations. It’s brought to screen by John Ridley, screenwriter for Oscar winner “12 Years A Slave.” And of all these shows, it is most like HBO’s heralded “The Wire”—but without that show’s dry wit and coarse speech, because you know, broadcast. The portrayal of addiction feels a little too Hollywood, and the pronouncements of racism a little too convenient. It’s a reminder of both why we love television and why prestige TV was so thrilling when it first appeared on the scene in the late ‘90s—broadcast’s circumspectness is understandable and even necessary, but it’s also so cathartic to engage in the issues of the day with the invective, grit, and physicality that is only possible on cable.
For all that “anthology miniseries” is a fancy-sounding phrase with many syllables, it’s not a guarantor of quality. It’s more that “anthology miniseries” is the label we give our most ambitious experiments. And you don’t always want to be in the same room as ambitious experiments—haven’t we learned anything from comic books? Still, what is true for Spider-Man is true for us, too—there are rewards to be reaped, along with the risks. Just wear your safety goggles.