Most TV shows, regardless of genre, follow the same basic format. We meet some characters and follow their lives over many episodes until the end of the show’s season. The next season begins with most of (if not all) the same characters and a new set of adventures that remains impacted by the events of the previous seasons. But keeping people invested in the same characters and content over so many episodes and seasons is a challenge that many a TV producer has grappled with — which is why some writers and producers have employed an alternative model. Enter, anthology series.

Anthology shows are uniquely structured TV series that use a discontinuous narrative. They have their perks — but can they survive in the intense climate of today’s entertainment world?

A Cross Between TV and Movies

These series play with the boundaries of what can be considered a “TV show” or a “series.” One type of anthology series is known as an “episodic anthology series,” the defining characteristic of which is the independence of each episode. This is achieved by exploring completely different characters and storylines for each episode of the show (and using a different cast). As a result, each episode of an anthology series with this structure can be essentially considered a “movie” of its own. Popular examples of shows like this are The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror

Anthology series can also be separated by season, rather than by episode. The same logic applies; each season resets the story and is capable of existing and being consumed on its own, with no knowledge of previous or later seasons necessary. Each season consists of a completely new set of characters and stories, essentially becoming its own mini-series. One of the most popular contemporary examples of a seasonal anthology series is American Horror Story

However, the components of an anthology series are not completely disconnected from each other. Despite not being linked by plot or characters, the multitudinous narratives presented by an anthology series remain connected thematically. Although the episodes or seasons of these series can stand alone and be watched on their own, consuming them together can help paint a more complete picture of what the show’s producers might be trying to say.

The Advantages of the Anthology

Anthology series systematically allow for the constant introduction and exploration of fresh ideas. They offer a level of freedom to their writers and producers unmatched by shows following the typical continuous narrative format. New ideas for characters and stories can be fleshed out independently, without fear of impacting or disrupting others. As American Horror Story producer Ryan Murphy asserted: “Creatively, you can’t beat it.” The creativity and freshness are beneficial for audiences, too; they help ensure that people don’t get bored of the same characters and stories. They present viewers with a similar level of freedom, as there’s no “correct order” to watch the episodes in.

What’s the catch?

TV shows love ending their episodes on cliffhangers. It’s what convinces people to click on that magical “Next Episode” button. It’s annoying, but it works. We always want to know what happens next … 

… which is precisely the crux of the anthology series problem. Particularly in an episodic anthology series, you can’t know what happens next. There isn’t a “next” — and in a streaming-dominated landscape where you can almost always find out what happens next, that can be a bit jarring.

In other words, anthology series suffer from the binge-watching tendencies adopted by most streaming service customers. These series simply don’t lend themselves to binge-watching; the discontinuous nature of the storylines presented by anthology series strips away the appeal of watching them in marathon fashion. Bingeing a normal series gets you closer and closer to the end, episode by episode. By contrast, bingeing an anthology series doesn’t get you closer to a single satisfying end — it gets you to multiple ends, only to start at several brand new, completely unrelated beginnings.

Final thoughts

Anthology series have the capacity to be brilliant, thought-provoking, and entertaining. Netflix’s Black Mirror is perhaps the best modern example — it’s fun, thought-provoking, creepy, unpredictable, and full of social commentary, all with entirely standalone episodes. When done right, anthology shows have plenty to offer. But the reality is that people love binge-watching shows and growing attached to their favorite characters over time — a paradigm of TV consumption that episodic anthology series just aren’t suited for. 

However, anthology series still possess a great deal of potential, and seasonal series offer a reasonable middle-ground. Fans can get attached to characters and binge-watch entire seasons, each of which essentially act as a series of its own. At the same time, however, different ideas can be explored every season, with new characters to meet and new stories to tell. This could explain the popularity of shows like FX’s American Horror Story and HBO’s True Detective. Shows like this maintain thematic consistency, while keeping audiences engaged with fresh content. They can be a preferable alternative to shows whose narratives stretch out over multiple seasons — and perhaps an option that producers could use to stand out from the crowd. 

The lack of a connecting storyline between seasons also has some interesting rights-related implications. The standalone nature of these shows’ seasons makes them easier to sell independently, potentially creating a broader market for the show. Being able to sell its individual components separately makes the show more valuable as a whole. The same argument can be made of anthology series whose individual episodes are independent of each other (e.g. The Twilight Zone). Companies interested in acquiring a selection of episodes, perhaps based on themes or popularity, can do so without concerns over the continuity of the storyline.

The appeal of episodic anthology series has suffered from the widely-adopted binge-watching paradigm. But seasonal anthology series have potential to strike the perfect balance between freedom, creativity, freshness, and bingeability.