Published on September 25th, 2015 | by Michael0
The Rise of The Anthology
There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.
In 1959, Rod Serling first spoke the immortal words above. The premise was simple enough, each half an hour each week audiences would join a new set of characters, often in a fantastical setting, for one time only before doing the same thing the following week. The series lacked any continuity or permanent cast, beyond its creator/presenter. As such, the show was able to draw all manner of guest stars who only had to commit to around 20 minutes worth of material, rather than a whole season’s worth. It was not the first Anthology series of course but it is probably the best from the Golden Age of television. Some of its episodes, and their classic twists, have gone down in History (‘‘To Serve Man’ is a Cookbook, got it’).
We are now in what is widely described as another Golden Age of television, an era ushered in by the stunning output of HBO around the turn of the century (Oz, The Sopranos, The Wire and Deadwood) but other channels have taken up the mantel such as AMC, putting out critically adored big hitters like Mad Men and Breaking Bad and hard hitting ratings smash The Walking Dead.
The problem, such as it is, with most these shows is that they all ran for several seasons, lacked real star power (they made the stars, not vice versa) and built up followings over time. This meant that a huge *potential* audience that weren’t on board from the start had to shell out for a box set or else hope the first seasons were repeated in full. For UK viewers, it was sometimes too much to hope that any of this stuff could be seen at all, especially at a reasonable hour. HBO a decade or so ago were notoriously trigger happy with their series. They gave the world Deadwood, Rome and Carnivale before killing each before their time. HBO giveth and HBO taketh away. Nowadays, HBO is far more au fait with its own business model, relying less on viewing figures than subscriptions and box set sales (or the streaming equivalent). This doesn’t help Deadwood of course (the greatest TV series ever made) but the next Deadwood might not meet so horrible a fate.
It isn’t all box sets and subscriptions though, some showrunners have thought of other ways around the problem of leaving an audience behind. Heralded by Ryan Murphy (of Glee fame) a new batch of creators have decided to revive the anthology format, except that now the stories will run of the course of an entire season, rather than a single episode. The benefits are obvious – stories are given time to breathe, but by pressing the reset button between seasons, new fans are always welcome. It’s an easy way to create ‘event’ television with each new series and there’s a real chance of attracting film calibre stars who only have to give up a few months of their schedule before being released. A similar model was used for the brilliant true crime Australian TV series Underbelly which relocated to a different decade for each series.
Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, though the forerunner of this new anthology model, doesn’t quite follow the same pattern as the rest. While the first series was packed with quality actors like Jessica Lange and Dylan McDermott, it lacked genuine film stars. Also, rather than recast each season, the show uses a revolving set of actors, rather like a theatre repertory company. Lange, Evan ‘Quicksilver’ Peters, Frances Conroy and Sarah Paulson, among others, repeatedly turn up in leading roles. Each series is set in a typical horror setting, haunted house, witch’s coven, carnival etc., milking old-fashioned premises for all they are worth. By common consensus the second season, set in an Asylum, is the best. It didn’t leave future season much room for maneuverer, taking in as it did maniacs, fearsome nuns, serial killers, pinheads, Nazi scientists and zombies. A veritable horror cliché blowout. Still the new series, set in an Overlook style Hotel offers some promise and the series has had a rejigging, Jessica Lange bowing out after four seasons to be replaced by Lady Gaga, of all people.
True Detective, the brainchild of writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga is an example of what an anthology series could be. Announced from the get go as a set of standalone crime stories taking place over a season, the show pulled off a real coup by casting Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as detectives Hart and Cohle, presumably because of their electric chemistry on the little seen EdTV. The cast proved key, not only did it provided genuine talking points before it even aired but the leads are wonderful, with Harrelson as the grounded but unreconstructed Hart a much needed counterpart to the cold but brilliant Cohle. Indeed the show came right in the middle of what is sometimes dubbed the McConassaince, the unstoppable rise of Matthew McConaughey from affable beach bum to the film star he always threatened to be in his youth (don’t believe me? Go back and watched Dazed & Confused, A Time To Kill and especially John Sayle’s Lone Star). Perhaps taking its cue from such visual treats as Breaking Bad, True Detective is frequently bold and stunning with it scenes, none more so that the famous tracking shot that ends episode four, an action scene probably never bettered on TV. Unfortunately, the very aspects that drew plaudits to the first season of True Detective may prove its undoing in the long run. First of all, the two leads, as advertised, departed. Speculation arose and to who was to replace them. Finally, it was announced that the fair to middling actors Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughan, along with the excellent Rachel McAdams would star. In addition there were changes behind the scene with Cary Fukunaga, the sole director of the first season, replaced by a series of directors. Rumours abound as to why Fukunaga didn’t return but the series can only be poorer for his absence. I admit to not having seen this season yet but by all accounts lightning has not struck twice.
Yet to return for its second series is Fargo, the pitch black crime series written by Noah Hawley, based on the Coen Brothers film of the same name. At first it was hard to tell the relationship between the film and the TV series – was it a remake or a sequel? Gradually it became clear that the two were set in the same fictional universe and beyond that were thematically very similar but the series beat its own path, to its eternal credit. Hawley has written of a ‘big book of Midwestern crime’, of which the film and each series of the TV series are different chapters. The first season deals with Lester Nygard, a pathetic nebbish who kills his wife after a chance encounter with malevolent man of mystery Lorne Malvo. The pair are played by Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton respectively, maybe not exactly Harrelson and McConaughey but still film stars. Rounding out the main cast are newcomer Alison Tolman and Colin ‘brother of Tom’ Hanks, a deputy and a cop trying desperately to piece together the various crimes across the region. Stellar support is offered in the form of Tolman’s father Lou, played by Keith Carradine, himself a former cop. Lou talks of an incident in Sioux Falls in the 1970s, which will form the basis of Season Two, to air next month. Patrick Wilson will play the younger Lou, meaning the various seasons will be more directly connected than either True Detective or American Horror Story. Also on board for the season are Ted Danson, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons (aka ‘Meth Damon’) and the ever delightful Nick Offerman.
The anthology continues to gather steam, no surprise after the runaway success of the trailblazers. The Crown Prince of Television, Ryan Murphy, has two additional series in the works. Starting this week in the States is another horror, Scream Queens, starring American Horror Story alumnus Emma Roberts. The series, a take-off of slasher films, promises to have more of a comedy than American Horror Story, and hopefully less of a damp squib than MTV’s poorly received Scream TV spin-off. In addition, a companion piece American Crime Story will debut early next year. Executive Produced by Ryan Murphy, the series is a True Crime anthology, each series focussing on a famous case. Season One stars Cuba Gooding Jr as O.J Simpson.
It seems as if the rise of the anthology (and Ryan Murphy) is unstoppable as audiences have really cottoned on to the ‘one series and done’ method of storytelling. Certainly it beats the convoluted nonsense of, say Prison Break or Lost and it stops the plots going into a holding pattern as they play for time and don’t know how to continue. The fate of Season Two of True Detective (and there’s no home release scheduled in the UK) is a warning sign though – ripping up everything that made the first series great isn’t always the best move. If Fargo 2 receives a similarly cold (sorry) reception, the famously conservative suits at US TV stations might decide that in future, audiences will want to stick with what they know.