I could argue that New Year’s Eve and July 4th are my two favorite holidays because these two days give me an excuse to binge my second favorite TV show for hours on end. SyFy, in a last ditch effort to repent for the abomination that was Mega Shark v. Giant Octopus, decided to play The Twilight Zone all day on these two holidays.
The Twilight Zone is an example of an anthology series, a program that completely changes actors and storylines either from episode to episode or season to season. This format, popular during the Golden Age of Television, had many benefits: it was easy to rebound from poor ratings, big name stars are more willing to sign shorter contracts, and the flexibilty allowed writers to tackle as many storylines and social critiques as they wanted. The Twilight Zone anthology format enabled the writers to sign stars such as William Shatner, Burgess Meredith and Mickey Rooney, adding a great deal of star power and respect to the show.
As the Golden Age faded away, so did the popularity of anthology programming. Five years ago, if you asked someone what an anthology series was, they would probably be very confused. The format hadn’t been popular in years. But in 2011, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk changed that by creating the FX series American Horror Story (AHS).
AHS has been a sensation, smashing cable records all over. The 2011 American society had grown jaded of the typical television format; six years in and Rick Grimes is still killing zombies, Tyrion Lannister is still four feet tall, and Jack Bauer is still catching terrorists. But AHS promised something different. Each season would tell a different story, complete with new actors and new settings. Because the show is given 12 episodes to begin and end a self-contained narrative, the pace is faster and the program is engrossing. A-List actors fill out its ever-changing roster, making the show seem more legitimate.
Other networks have jumped onto the anthology bandwagon after the success of AHS. Take HBO’s True Detective for instance. True Detective, my all-time favorite series, follows the same format as AHS. The first season starred Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, two of Hollywood’s biggest names. The show garnered huge audiences and rave reviews.
But then came season two. Reviews were terrible, and viewership was terrible. Under any other circumstances, the show would have been cancelled. But with the promise of a blank slate for season three, HBO was able to give the writers a chance to redeem themselves. This is perhaps the best characteristic of such shows.
American Horror Story, True Detective and Fargo are three of the biggest shows being produced right now, and for good reason. They bring something fresh to the table, a fast-paced story full of big name actors with the promise of something new right around the corner.
I believe we are currently in television’s second Golden Age. Building off of AHS’s success, more anthology series will appear bringing more movie stars to the television screen. If Fargo and True Detective are any indication, the this format has the potential to grow back into a dominant force of the television landscape. And in the often stale, laughtrack laden world of today’s scripted TV, it may be exactly what we need.