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First AMERICAN HORROR STORY, Now TRUE DETECTIVE: Why Award Nominations Say More Than You Think

Press Play By Jesse Damiani | Press Play August 21, 2014 at 2:58PM

No matter how TV-literate we may fancy ourselves, the anthology series retains the capacity to surprise us in ways (kind, quality, and frequency) that a traditional drama can’t match.
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With any spate of Emmy nominations come the invariable snubs and the inevitable outcry. Last year, the hot topic was Tatiana Maslany, this year it’s True Detective. Why is this show categorized as a traditional drama when the likes of Fargo and American Horror Story—which share the same anthology format—reside in the miniseries category? Why would HBO pit True Detective, certainly a great program, against the juggernaut final (half-)season of Breaking Bad (among other notables)? The explanation involving the wording of the rules has hardly softened the speculation that this is a power play on HBO’s part. FX faced similar criticisms in the past with American Horror Story, ultimately settling into the miniseries category, a move that many viewed as a convenient way to avoid competing with the likes of Homeland and Game of Thrones. This all might seem superfluous (it’s about the art, not the awards!), but the way True Detective’s categorization issue has been handled adds new economic value to the genre, increasing the likelihood that we’ll see an exponential surge of anthologies in years to come.

Though American Horror Story is hardly the first of its kind, it is without question the catalyst for the renewed interest in the form we’re witnessing now. Its approach—closed seasons that bear no relation to the others save for recurring cast members—has brought FX a diversified audience and heaps of award nominations and wins. Capitalizing on that success, True Detective and Fargo established 2014 as a breakout year for the televised anthology. In February, Mark Maurer illustrated some of the benefits of the form, citing its binge-friendly structure, potential to create fulfilling storylines, and ability to attract star talent with demanding schedules. I’d submit that another asset of the form is its ability to undermine audience expectations. Like the ever-popular novel-in-stories genre in the literary world, the anthology series allows its viewers’ minds to run wild on a moment-to-moment basis. Where we pretty much knew that Breaking Bad wouldn’t kill off Walt in Season 2, for instance, we can’t carry the same certainty for any of the protagonists in Fargo—a show that is very aware of this advantage. No matter how TV-literate we may fancy ourselves, the anthology retains the capacity to surprise us in ways (kind, quality, and frequency) that a traditional drama can’t match.

And there are other benefits: self-reference and tie-ins in the form of cameos, recurring cast members (or repeat characters played by new talent), or whole plotlines (as in the announcement of Fargo’s setting in Season 2). Once upon a time, syndication was king: a show needed to reach the fabled 100-episode mark to earn the right to be bought by other networks for reruns. Video-on-Demand streaming and rental services have changed the game entirely. Where syndication regularly depended on the whims of the lowest common denominator, streaming services have proven that niche consumer interests can be just as profitable, particularly when involving cult, award-winning, or critically acclaimed series. The result is that a quality program—even one that didn’t necessarily wrangle many viewers during its initial run—can still be sold to VOD services for a handsome price, thus earning its keep in the eyes of the network, as Mad Men’s whopping $75-$100 million price tag in 2011 evinces.

As television becomes increasingly oriented around streaming, the sheer watchability of anthology shows—which tend to feature fewer episodes with tighter storylines—alongside the aforementioned advantages, imbues them with major cash-cow potential. One bad season need not sound a show’s death knell. With American Horror Story, for example, I was taken with the first season’s jarring visual style and juxtaposition of horror, lightheartedness, and suburban claustrophobia, but found the second season’s gore-focus tiresome enough to quit after a few episodes. Because each season is self-contained, I knew I could check back in for Season 3 without fearing I’d missed vital information—not the kind of thing one can realistically do in the middle of a serialized, long-form narrative. As a result, anthologies also, with some exception, renew their access points on a rolling basis; they can grab new viewers at the start of each season. If a potential viewer of Fargo wanted to watch the series in terms of chronology rather than release date, for example, they could start with next year’s 1979 Sioux Falls setting, then “backtrack” to Bemidji 2006. I can even imagine future programs toying with this idea, creating jigsaw puzzles intended to be watched in a variety of sequences.

The demand for high-quality drama, which significantly increases the costs associated with producing new programs, has steered many channels to invest more heavily in pre-vetted source texts: offerings that have demonstrated profitability elsewhere, such as novels, films, comics, and international series. Alongside Fargo, Hannibal, Bates Motel, Constantine, Gotham, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Killing, Homeland, Arrow, The Bridge, and Gracepoint are just some of the adaptations to have been green-lit for the small screen in recent memory. With any show, the hope is for a long, lucrative run. Ideally, each season after the first textures and builds on all that’s been established without retreading old territory, but “topping” previous work can be tricky without defaulting to far-fetched scenarios in hopes of recreating the dynamism that attracted viewers in the first place. For this reason, the anthology provides a nice home for original content. What is lost in plot continuity is gained in ease of longevity; all things being equal, networks can trust that each season of an anthology will perform similarly to the ones before it, and writers/producers can create new, organic work each season.

And now, the True Detective award kerfuffle has revealed yet another strength: the ability to hop genres come award season. As long as the likes of the Emmy committee continues to wash its hands of responsibility, the precedent will hold. Networks will game the system, placing their anthologies in whichever category they believe will yield the best results (imagine the mess when they start dipping their fingers in proper comedy anthologies). This form is one of the most exciting things in television; in many ways, it’s the most organic structure for the medium and the habits of its viewership. Relegating it to the miniseries category doesn’t fit, but it equally doesn’t belong in the traditional drama category. Until there are enough additions to the genre, we won’t see a designated anthology category. In the meantime, the field is wide open for those willing to experiment.

Jesse Damiani is Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Omnidawn, 2014). He lives in Madison, WI.


This article is related to: Jesse Damiani, Blogs, Emmy Awards


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