Commitment Issues: The rise of the anthology series

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Image courtesy of BagoGames via Flickr

When someone tells me to watch a new TV series, my first question is “How many episodes per season?”. With the massive influx of great television happening right now there’s so much to watch with so little time and my biggest pet peeve is trudging through 5 seasons of 22 episodes with filler, agonising subplots and a year-long wait for the next part of the story to arrive.

But the return of Black Mirror to Netflix last month reminded me of how much I adore the episodic anthology format. When reading the different episode discussions online, I was pleasantly surprised to see how many people were choosing their own non-linear watching order since the show doesn’t depend on an ongoing story.

Black Mirror takes great pride in being able to offer a new story and setting each episode without the viewer needing to have watched prior episodes and knowing this, the audience member knows exactly what they’re getting into: an hour of social commentary, horror, black comedy and science fiction. Whilst binge watching the show’s fourth season, I found my excitement levels for individual episodes remaining consistently high, since I knew that I would get a variety of new tones and characters every time and each episode was delightfully different from the last in whatever order you choose to watch.

This is taken a step further with entire seasons dedicated to an isolated story which have proven to be increasingly popular over the past few years. Shows such as American Horror/Crime Story, True Detective and my personal favourite Fargo have showed ways to tell wildly different stories under the same banner, giving viewers enough unfamiliarity to keep the show exciting and fresh whilst giving them something familiar through the tone of the show.

Anthology seasons let audiences commit to following new characters for multiple episodes and to have most things wrapped up in a neat package by the end. Character growth and development is still present but the story avoids exhausting itself. People often say the best stories and TV shows end too soon, but it’s better to leave you wanting more than to stretch a concept too far and ruining a good legacy.

On that note, anthologies also let shows take a greater amount of risks and departures from a show’s ‘norm’. The episode ‘Metalhead’ from the latest season of Black Mirror, presented entirely in black and white or Season 2 of True Detective may have been different to what audiences expected but nonetheless were risks worth taking. These risks can either pay off or fall flat, but either way the format provides a safe way for artistic risks to be taken without hurting a show in the long run.

In a world of Reddit discussion threads and social television, people want to theorise and discuss their favourite TV shows more than ever. Audiences following a ten-week long story lets them discuss every new chapter without having to commit to a show in the long run. New viewers can also drop in at a season premiere, without having to worry about catching up.

However, there’s still a place for high quality television which likes to tell stories in the long form. Spending more time with a cast of characters allows for more organic growth, allowing the story to breathe and develop, culminating in some amazing television moments. Breaking Bad and the most recent season of Game of Thrones are full of these, where long-awaited payoffs are given. This is something anthologies might struggle to achieve in so little time.

But anthologies can get clever with how each story interplays with each other. Certain shows I may/may not have mentioned before share easter eggs, references and sometimes cast members to help provide a satisfying sense of continuity throughout the entire show’s run.

With the amount of different ways to watch TV nowadays, it’s exciting to see so many audiences and producers embracing the anthology format. Audiences have more choice than ever but also less time and anthologies are some of the best ways to dig into a satisfying TV experience whilst avoiding potential disappointment and declining quality.