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The age of anthology: Why the Ryan Murphy model is taking over television

Denis O'Hare, Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson, Angela Bassett, and Frances Conroy of AHS: Freak Show

The anthology series was a major topic of conversation at this year’s Television Critics Association Press Tour, the twice-yearly event at which networks allow critics a closer look at their programming. Whether the buzz was positive or negative depended on which network was presenting its wares. When FX president John Landgraf introduced a panel for American Horror Story: Hotel, the forthcoming fifth installment in the franchise, he had a lot to crow about. Not only is the American Horror Story franchise the most watched show in the network’s history, it’s racked up 70 Emmy nominations over its run and spawned the industry’s insatiable appetite for the limited series.

“With [AHS], Ryan Murphy invented the modern anthological series or limited series and initiated a new genre that has proved irresistible to other great artists and networks,” said Landgraf. “It’s pretty rare to see a truly new and original form of television, and I can honestly say that watching this genre develop not only through the four and now five seasons of American Horror Story and the one and now two seasons of Fargo and the beginning of our new series American Crime Story, but also through HBO’s True Detective and ABC’s American Crime, this has been as fun as anything I’ve ever done professionally.”


Considering how many anthology series have cropped up in the wake of AHS, Landgraf was being slightly modest about the influence of Murphy’s model. Murphy has benefitted most from the anthology boom. In addition to FX’s Hotel and American Crime Story—a true-crime anthology series—Murphy sold Fox on Scream Queens, a campy horror-comedy anthology. ABC brought back John Ridley’s American Crime for a second season, a shrewd move considering the provocative, topical series compensated for its anemic viewership with 10 Emmy nominations. Also returning to ABC is Secrets And Lies, the Juliette Lewis whodunnit, and the network is about to introduce Wicked City, a noir period mystery.

The tone of the conversation about anthologies wasn’t as favorable when HBO’s president of programming Michael Lombardo took the stage for an executive session. Lombardo spent a good portion of his time defending the critically razed second season of True Detective, which has seen a marked drop in quality since swapping out Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey for a hit-or-miss quartet of new characters. Lombardo, who said he’s unconcerned about the backlash, redoubled his praise of Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto and said a third season of the show is only a matter of Pizzolatto’s desire to make one. “I’m not in the business of micromanaging the process in the sense of telling a writer that these are the beats they need to follow in how they tell a story,” said Lombardo. “I think Nick is a bold storyteller, and I mean that only in the most positive ways.”

Detective isn’t the only case of an anthology series showing diminished returns over time. AHS, the show responsible for the anthology boom, is equally representative of the steep quality declines that can infect anthologies. Freak Show, the most recent AHS installment, was its least critically successful, and with the exception of Asylum, AHS’ second season, the show has grown less effective with each new season. But in the television industry, a robust audience forgives all, and Freak Show shattered its own ratings record with more than 12 million viewers.

For better or worse, television’s anthology bubble is rapidly expanding, and for fairly simple reasons. Anthologies require less commitment from the audience than open-ended series. Viewers can watch an anthology in full faith that the narrative mysteries won’t be endlessly piled atop one another or parceled out at a stingy pace. They can also try a show they’ve never watched before, regardless of what season it’s in. The limited series’ relatively low cost of entry has emboldened networks to reanimate their most infamous brands for closed-end runs, like NBC’s Heroes: Reborn and the recently announced Prison Break revival at Fox. Though Heroes and Prison Break alienated their most loyal viewers as they progressed, even the most sunburned fans will be drawn back in hoping a short, self-contained series will goose the storytelling.


Anthologies are also irresistible to actors, who love the flexibility of one-year contracts allowing them to pursue other projects, or at the very least, return to the series as a completely different character. The relatively short commitment facilitates the participation of in-demand performers who typically avoid series television because it demands so much time. Hotel will be the first AHS season without Jessica Lange, who opted to do a play instead, and Lady Gaga will step into the lead role, a casting coup an open-ended series could never pull off. Anthologies also offer actors greater opportunities for Emmy recognition in the rechristened Outstanding Limited Series category, a race with only a fraction of the competition of the drama categories.

Networks love anthologies because they allow for greater cost control on the talent side and are incredibly easy to market. The one-year contracts and clean-slate storytelling make it difficult, even for a usual-suspects troupe like that of AHS, to pull off the kind of salary coup that’s business as usual for cast members on open-ended series. Marketing anthologies is child’s play because their cyclical nature keeps them in the news between seasons. Open-ended series drop out of the public consciousness relatively quickly after their first or second years, but AHS generates buzz every year with its title, concept, and casting announcements. Even the little-watched American Crime has become a reliable news generator, from the casting of Andre 3000 to the brunette dye job for Felicity Huffman, who is returning to the show as a new, raven-haired character.


With so many upsides to anthology series, it’s no wonder they’ve proliferated as quickly as they have. And while True Detective’s fall from grace should possibly give television executives pause, it probably won’t. After all, much of the narrative around Detective’s season-two decline is fueled by schadenfreude. Pizzolatto seems excessively pleased with himself in his scripts and his interviews, and the wobbly second season has put the smell of blood in the water, especially given the departure of acclaimed season one director Cary Fukunaga. All totaled, the facts make for an irresistible emperor’s-new-clothes narrative that is specific to Detective rather than to anthologies.

But there is a problem with anthologies, a problem that has plagued the television industry practically since its inception. The television industry still acts as if it’s trapped in the prestigious shadow of the film industry, and television often takes too many of its cues from film. In the case of the anthology boom, television has contracted the film world’s hopeless addiction to brand advancement at the cost of good storytelling. The film industry thrives on strong brands that can sustain a sequel or reboot every few years—like the Mission: Impossible series—and the industry is transparent about its emphasis on profit at the cost of product. Anthologies and limited series are to television as summer tentpoles are to film. Networks aren’t sold a story, they’re sold a brand—like American Horror Story—that’s easy to sell to viewers regardless of the content. This explains why Fox is still actively developing a new iteration of 24 without Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), the franchise’s only mandatory element.


The trend reflects more than the film industry’s influence on television. The proliferation of the anthology series also says a lot about how overtaxed television audiences are. Anthology series deprive themselves of television’s primary advantages over the film medium. Audiences are able to forge long-term relationships with characters that result in more emotionally affecting television, and stories can be carefully paced such that a dangling plot thread in season one can be the highlight of season four. But audiences are flocking to anthologies for precisely this reason. With the glut of original programming on television, the last thing a television watcher needs is a new long-term commitment. The embrace of anthologies is evidence that the burdensome volume of television is changing what the audience values about the medium.

Landgraf flicked at the same idea in his controversial executive session, in which he said the original programming bubble will burst within the next two years, a trend FX is miles ahead of with three anthologies on its slate. “I, long ago, lost the ability to keep track of every scripted TV series, as I know you do, even though we all do this for a living professionally; but, this year, I finally lost track of the ability to keep track of every programmer who is in the scripted programming business,” said Landgraf. “And as you critics know better than anyone in America, this is simply too much television.” He’s got a point, and while anthologies might not be the best solution for the medium going forward, their popularity proves that television audiences are seeking reprieve.


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