Are anthology shows the future of television?

Wednesday, November 7, 2018 - 2:53pm

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Last Dec., CBS announced it was working on a new Jordan Peele-produced sci-fi anthology series to be released on CBS All-Access, the network’s streaming site, in 2019.  Pretty quickly, more names were attached to the project — Sanaa Lathan (“Nappily Ever After”) is set to star in one episode, Adam Scott (“The Good Place”) in another. Peele, who won an Oscar last year for directing “Get Out,” says he hopes the show will “hold a mirror up to our society.”

It seems like this is TV’s new modus operandi: experimental shows that transform themselves season-to-season or — even more ambitiously — episode-to-episode, replete with star-studded casts and weighty themes. With a few exceptions, they’re gripping and subversive, crafting miniature worlds and rules for viewers to familiarize themselves with before scrapping them and dreaming up something new. There are a handful of anthologies on the air now, and another bunch in the works, spanning genres from true-crime to romantic comedy to horror. It’s worth wondering: Are anthology shows the next big thing in TV?

Not so fast. That Jordan Peele sci-fi series? It’s actually a revival of “The Twilight Zone,” the famed paranormal anthology that ran on CBS some 50-years-ago. The anthology show isn’t so much a new phenomenon as it is a very old one. But the conditions that have made the anthology popular again are new. The rise of Netflix has hurtled us all into the streaming age, where creators are unencumbered by ratings pressure and free to test out niche offerings. And some combination of shorter episode orders and the small screen’s increased prestige has big-name artists flocking to a medium that’s no longer the onerous obligation it once was.

Anthology television seems to make everything easier. It’s low-commitment for actors and directors, and it’s great for the poor victims of TV’s golden age: us viewers, forced to sift through heaps of content without the time to watch any of it. The anthology lets us cherry pick what we want and skip what we don’t, with absolutely no consequences.

I don’t care much for the faux insight of “Black Mirror,” Netflix’s dystopic anthology about the consequences of new technology, which the writer Daniel Ortberg summed up nicely as: “What if phones, but too much?” I did, however, love the third season’s “San Junipero,” a stylish, tender episode with a rare (for “Black Mirror”) happy ending. It was better for the fact that I didn’t need to slog through the rest of the show to get to it — like getting dessert without having to eat my vegetables.

That satisfaction of a well-crafted anthology chapter is the same satisfaction we get from reading a good short story. Some have punchy, shocking endings to rival “A Rose for Emily,” while others favor the creeping tension of “The Lottery.” A few anthologies do draw directly from short story collections — Amazon’s “Electric Dreams” adapts the works of Philip K. Dick; Indian channel Epic aired a series based on the writings of Rabindranath Tagore. Networks, if you’re reading, Kate Chopin’s tragic vignettes of domestic life are practically screaming to be made into a TV miniseries. NBC? Hulu? Crackle? Frito-Lay? Someone, please do this.

Some anthology series, like those based on short fiction collections, are bound together only by a common author. Netflix, for instance, recently announced a forthcoming Dolly Parton anthology series, each chapter based on a song of hers — “Jolene” will be first, of course. Others have more inventive connective tissue — on HBO’s “High Maintenance,” a shared pot dealer is the degree of separation one episode’s characters have from another’s. TBS’s “The Guest Book” follows different vacationers at a mountain cottage, while the BBC’s “Inside No. 9” tells the stories of all sorts of people living at addresses beginning with “nine.”

Season-long anthologies, a somewhat newer model, tend to operate around much broader themes, each season telling its own self-contained story, sometimes with the same cast as the previous season’s. The pioneer and biggest purveyor of these is none other than Ryan Murphy, who has three on air now: “American Horror Story,” “American Crime Story” and “Feud.” It’s an almost too-good-to-be-true format for Murphy, who grows bored with his own premises quickly and does his best work when given the freedom to reinvent.

It’s an almost too-bad-to-be-true format for Matthew Weiner, whose dreadful post-“Mad Men” anthology project “The Romanoffs,” new on Amazon, is a reminder of how difficult anthology storytelling can be. In the interest of telling complete stories in one chapter, anthology episodes are prone to clunky exposition dumps, doing more telling than showing. And in trying to say everything they intend to, they also run the risk of being overly long — each episode of “The Romanoffs” clocks in at a soul-crushing 90 minutes, a crime for a style of TV that should be as pleasant and effortless as candy dissolving on the tongue.

There is also the sense that with anthology TV we lose the emotional connection serialized television fosters. We can’t experience the pleasure of rewarding character growth, or slow-burning chemistry or winking self-reference. That isn’t always the case (see again, “San Junipero”), but there’s some truth to it.

Some of the best TV episodes of the last few years have been compromises between these two poles: the flexibility of the anthology episode and the poignancy of serialized television. They’re what is known as bottle episodes — experimental, dialogue-heavy standalone episodes removed from a show’s regular continuity. “Girls” did them to great success; “BoJack Horseman” has had several, one entirely underwater, another a 25-minute eulogy. The third season of “Breaking Bad” features a famous bottle episode all about trying to catch a fly. That’s what should be the next big thing: television that enters — as the original “The Twilight Zone” put it — “the wondrous dimension of imagination.”