The Roots and Rebirth of the Anthology Series

Whether it’s Marvel’s What If…? or American Crime Story: Impeachment, in 2021 it can feel as though anthology series have become a firmly entrenched staple of the United States’ television output. And yet, only a decade or so ago, you would have had trouble finding much that fit the description of an anthology series on US or British television. So, what has caused the sudden ubiquity of this format, one that sees little to no connection from season to season, or sometimes episode to episode? The short answer is that they provide benefits and flexibility to storytellers, actors, and audiences alike—but there’s a little more to it than that…

 

Anthology Series Are Not New

In recent years, the anthology series has seen a renewed prevalence in a fresh form, but its roots can be traced back more than a century. At first glance, today’s anthology series might appear largely indistinguishable from other television on an episode-by-episode basis. You are expected to know beforehand, or figure out quickly, that each story told is (mostly) separate and unconnected, and that a recurring cast of actors does not necessarily mean a recurring cast of characters. The reach of the internet has helped to allow creators to assume that you will know the context of an anthology show before viewing it, but earlier iterations of the concept took a different approach.

As early as the late-1940s, anthology shows began to appear on television and drew much of their inspiration from theater. Rather than setting up extensive storylines across multipart series, each entry was presented as a standalone story. The framing for each series often aimed to draw parallels to the theater (which audiences would have been more familiar with), with many of the shows going as far as to include theater in the name to secure the allusion. One early example is Fireside Theater, which first broadcast in 1949 and is credited with being the first truly successful series filmed for television in the United States. For many of its years on the air, Fireside Theater was introduced by a host who would present the story. One of these hosts, who also starred in many of the episodes alongside ever-changing star-studded casts, became such a key figure that Fireside Theater was eventually renamed after her, making it Jane Wyman Presents. This format itself was born from an earlier iteration, with radio shows birthing the genre as shows like Lux Radio Theater (first aired 1934) providing the template for the later television shows, from their mainstay hosts to their rotating cast members.

Of course, these theater allusions demonstrate how far back the idea of anthology shows can actually be followed. Theatrical history was based around theater troupes who could fill the cast of whatever the latest play was, with perhaps the most famous example being William Shakespeare’s own company of actors, The King’s Men (née The Lord Chamberlain’s Men). Predating even that is the Italian form of commedia dell’arte, which saw theater troupes of established actors playing archetype-based roles in a variety of settings. The idea of these shorter stories featuring a range of actors, each appearing in a variety of parts, persisted for centuries. However, as television moved towards longer narratives that spanned many seasons and could (in some cases) stretch across decades, the briefer glimpses of an imaginary world started to fade away. By the late 1970s, many of the anthology series had died out, with only a few of the theater-style series persisting into the 1990s, and with a greater number of those filmed and broadcast in the United Kingdom rather than the United States.

 

2011: A Turning Point

After decades without a successful anthology series in the US or the UK, 2011 saw the appearance of two that would go on to run for years: American Horror Story and Black Mirror. Beyond both being anthology series that launched in 2011, the two shows have little in common. Black Mirror, a UK production created by Charlie Brooker, told a different isolated story within each episode over five seasons, often employing science fiction techniques to question aspects of modern society. American Horror Story is a US production and works on a season-by-season basis, with individual tales within each season often acting as their own anthology stories within the larger meta-narrative.

However, the series did have some keys things in common. They both received largely positive responses from viewers and critics. They both used their standalone stories to examine and interrogate social issues. And they both took advantage of the shorter runs for their characters and stories to make viewers uncomfortable for brief periods without driving them away. Some of the crossover between the two series gestures to a similarity to some of the most culturally memorable anthology series that had come before: Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone.

Since the success of Black Mirror and American Horror Story, the landscape of anthology stories has exploded with shows that follow their lead. The latter has now directly spawned two spin-off shows: American Crime Story and American Horror Stories. Other shows have used the format to great effect over a range of genres such as crime (Fargo, True Detective), comedy (Miracle Workers, Inside No.9), science fiction (Love, Death & Robots), or a combination of different genres (Room 104). So, what is it that makes this such an appealing medium for writers and viewers?

 

Anthology Series as a Tool for Storytelling

Anthology series allow a storyteller to simply tell the narrative that they want to tell, explore the world that they want to create, and then go no further. The ability to explore a new character, world or idea in each season or episode is a particular boon to science fiction and fantasy series. Black Mirror provides an excellent example of this, with the show’s speculative fiction-based, “what if”-style approach mimicking the style of some of Isaac Asimov’s short stories. Similarly, American Horror Story was able to use their second season (Asylum) to delve into issues around sexuality and mental health and their third season (Coven) to explore America’s history with racism and slavery. In a similar way, the crime genre can delve into mysteries in different places and around different casts of characters to play with different dynamics, avoiding the need to contrive reasons for the high crime rate in one particular location, and comedy series can function as effective long-form sketch shows. While an author might choose to write a lengthy series of novels on a topic or locale, the anthology series is more analogous to a collection of short stories that might have a similar feel or common themes, but can ultimately allow more freedom to the writer.

When it comes to effective storytelling, the anthology series offers benefits that cannot be matched by long, sprawling series. With the rise of production studios owned by streaming services, trends in television are moving away from longer season lengths that are defined by the need to fill networks’ release schedules. Instead, more shows are demonstrating variable-length seasons that only have the episodes necessary to tell that season’s story, such as The Mandalorian and the different offerings from Disney+ for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Similarly, shows like The Good Place have recognized when to call it a day and conclude their story at a natural stopping point, as planned, rather than attempting to spin the narrative to sustain a longer cycle. This greater focus on concise storytelling is where anthology series are primed to succeed, as the showrunners have the ability to conclude a story and a character arc and still have a job when the next season rolls around.

 

A Win For Audiences and Actors

Audiences today have an endless wealth of entertainment at their fingertips and there is never enough time to consume it all. While previously viewers might have been happy to settle down for their usual episode in a show’s expected timeslot and watch whatever was happening within the 24-episode season, with many more options at our disposal we have less patience for having our time wasted. The anthology series only needs to tell the stories that it wants to focus on, and thus negates the concept of the “filler episode” that has plagued too many shows: episodes that only serve to pad the release schedule and do not drive the narrative or character development. There is a double-edged nature to this, however, as each new narrative can require you to learn about a new world or set of characters. While this can offer an intriguing mystery to some, it can also make for less relaxed or predictable viewing at times when you’re looking to watch something that’s less of a challenge.

The anthology series is a particular gift to actors precisely because they are not required to commit to playing a single character in a show that could run for fifteen seasons. Playing one character for that long can easily lead to an actor being typecast, making it harder to get different roles in the future. The anthology series can allow them to play a very different role in every episode or season, turning a long-running show from a sentence that can lock the actor into a singular style into a demo reel that demonstrates their breadth. While in other formats an actor might feel the need to take on a distinctly different role to try and break typecasting, as with Daniel Radcliffe’s Broadway performance in Equus, within the anthology series there is scope for an actor to discuss taking on differing types of roles within the show instead. An actor can also more easily leave the show for a season or more while they work on other projects and then come back later, without having to worry that their character has been written out or killed off.

 

From Anthologies to Extended Universes

Stories that might have once only been feasible for a limited event series, which required pulling together a full creative and production team for a short run, can now see a greater future with the return of the anthology series. Shows like American Horror Story and Miracle Workers would have once been simple limited-event series that appeared as a brief flash in the pan, but by using the anthology series format have gone on to something bigger. The sheer scope offered by the format is reflected in American Horror Story, which eventually chose to turn their anthology series into an expanded universe by confirming in season 4 that the different seasons all took place in the same timeline.

American Horror Story’s choice highlights the similarity between the anthology story and larger expanded universes that tell individual stories within a much wider world. The triumph of the anthology series as a successful format in recent years can be seen as fueling the way that those universes are built, as it has helped to make it clear that audiences are interested in these more contained stories, but still enjoy seeing those stories cross-referenced and interconnected. It is possible that this has influenced the way that the MCU has created their recent slate of TV shows for Disney+, which focus on smaller casts of characters in more limited capacities but allow each series to strike a very different tone and style. Similarly, The Walking Dead is creating its own expanded universe through a series of spin-off shows (including the upcoming anthology series Tales from the Walking Dead) that give the characters and the universe greater longevity beyond the initial series run.

Anthology productions are responsible for the roots of much of today’s modern entertainment. The return to that structure over the past decade is a definitive success that offers richer storytelling, greater space for social critique, and better opportunities for actors and audiences alike. With even more new anthology series in development all the time—such as The Premise, which just premiered this month, Horror Noire (which begins airing in October), and Guillermo Del Toro Presents 10 After Midnight currently in production—the current popularity of the format will continue to define the way that entertainment is created. Of course, just as with the current crop of shows, some will resonate more than others, so let us know in the comments what you’re looking forward to: what aspects of anthology series work best for you, and what are your current favorites?

 

Faefyx Collington (They/Them) is a British writer. Their articles cover popular culture, LGBTQ+ issues, and current affairs, while their fiction tends towards science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. Never content to settle to one thing, Faefyx is also a co-host and producer of the podcast and video series “Unramblings,” and can occasionally be found making music as well. Having acquired degrees on both sides of the Atlantic, Fyx has settled (for the moment) in the southern United States where they live with their spouse and an entirely appropriate number of cats.

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