Anthology Format Gets a ‘True’ Rebirth

AMC is the latest of many nets modeling shows after 'True Detective' and 'Fargo'

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AMC has made history with its decorated dramas, be it Mad Men or Breaking Bad, while The Terror will make more history as the first anthology series the cable net has ever produced. For a program about a navy crew that is set upon by a mysterious predator, it was a perfect storm of sorts that made The Terror right for the anthology format. With a fresh group of characters and plot lines each season, the modern anthology offers attention-deficit viewers an eminently consumable viewing option, and gives big-name film actors an opportunity to dabble in TV.

And after the success of Fargo and American Horror Story on FX and the maiden season of True Detective on HBO, anthology series sport a relatively high batting average amidst today’s scripted smorgasbord. “People look at this as the sweet spot in the scripted TV world,” says Joel Stillerman, AMC president of original programming. “I think you’ll see a proliferation of them in the next few years.”

That may well be underway. It includes American Crime Story on FX, Black Mirror on Netflix and American Crime on ABC. In the works are Tales From the Crypt and Time of Death on TNT, and A Midsummer’s Nightmare on Lifetime.

In the Zone

Anthologies are hardly a new concept; The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents were among the many vintage series featuring fresh characters and stories each week. The form has also long been common in British TV. More recently, episodic dramas, often set in hospitals and police precincts, were the rage, before giving way to serialized series. “Those were a breath of fresh air, and I think it’s the same with anthology series,” says Amanda Lotz, professor of media studies at the University of Michigan.

The rise of auteur-driven projects on cable and subscription video-on-demand, where episode and season lengths are often bespoke, paved the way for the modern anthology.

Programmers warn against shoehorning a series into an anthology, insisting the story has to be right for the format. In Fargo’s case, it was a way to spin new yarns remotely tethered to the bleakly humorous 1996 film. With The Terror, it’s an adaptation of an 800-page novel with multiple viewpoints.

Furthermore, the blank canvas an anthology series presents each season is something of a nightmare to market. “It’s hard enough to attract an audience for a new show,” says Lotz.

But Stillerman believes these kinds of projects have a strong chance of wiggling onto a viewer’s watch list. “People may be more inclined to watch for 10 episodes, knowing it will end,” he says, “than something they have to commit to for five years.”

Similarly, big-name talent looking to snag peak TV mojo is more likely to commit to a bookended 10-episode season. That helped True Detective land Matthew McConaughey, and American Crime Story get John Travolta. “We’ve been able to secure actors who don’t normally sign on to TV series,” says Eric Schrier, FX Networks president, original programming. “For them, it’s like doing a long movie.”

The Terror doesn’t debut until 2017, but Stillerman won’t wait that long to see how the anthology concept works out for AMC. “We are pretty aggressively looking at these things,” he says. “We’d like to find a couple more.”