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'Fargo': Anthologies breathe new life into storytelling on TV

Anthology TV shows are everywhere with programs like 'True Detective,' 'American Horror Story,' and 'Fargo' winning over viewers and critics. What makes these programs so popular?

Lacey Terrell/HBO/AP
Colin Farrell in 'True Detective.'

What’s old is new again. Over the past several years, anthology TV shows – shows that feature different characters or different plotlines from season to season – have seen a resurgence, racking up Emmy Awards and Golden Globes. 

The format has a long history in entertainment. “The Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” are classics from the height of the anthology era in the 1950s; each episode featured a separate and complete story. Today’s anthologies stretch the story arc over an entire season, and the versatility of the format is bringing new life to programming weary of reality shows and predictable family comedies. They are also drawing from a wider pool of talent. A-list actors, such as Matthew McConaughey, who starred in Season 1 of “True Detective” (HBO), and Martin Freeman, who appeared in “Fargo” (FX), might be more likely to sign on for a limited number of episodes rather than commit to multiple seasons. 

In addition, “you don’t have to keep [story lines] going forever,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. Take ABC’s “Lost,” which earned criticism among viewers for going on too long and never resolving crucial mysteries. “[The anthology approach] allows you to do these stories with beginnings, middles, and ends” within one season, he says.

There is no one way to develop an anthology, and the creativity is proving to keep viewers’ interest. For instance, Season 2 of “Fargo” time travels to the 1970s. On “American Horror Story” (FX), returning actors play different characters. 

But anthologies that take too many storytelling risks can present their own challenges. Fans of “True Detective” loudly protested their dissatisfaction with the confusing plotline of Season 2. Mr. Thompson points to “American Horror Story” as a sterling example of the genre. “[It] has a continuity of style and feel,” he says.

Season 2 of “True Detective” has wrapped up. “American Horror Story” Season 5 begins Oct. 7, and “Fargo” Season 2 begins Oct. 12. 

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