When the 2011 first season of Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story ended with (spoiler alert) everyone winding up dead, viewers assumed they’d come back the following season as ghosts. Not so. Not only was season two set in a different location, it didn't even have the same characters. Yet, in a canny twist, most of the cast came back to tell an entirely new, equally freaky tale of horror, gore and intrigue.
It was revolutionary. Murphy was basically bringing repertory theatre to TV, assembling a rag-tag mob of some of the best actors in Hollywood and letting them loose on a different scenario each new season. One year they’d be trapped in a New England mental asylum, the next they’d be on tour with a travelling freak show. If an actor played a psychic one season, they’d be an intrepid undercover journalist the next. Or they’d go from a sadistic nun with an alcohol addiction to a modern-day stiletto-wearing witch with an ego as big as her hat.
Murphy could get the best talent available because they knew they’d only have to commit to one season. If they didn’t like the show - or their character - they wouldn’t be stuck playing them for years on end. As a result, the series became a showcase for amazing actors to strut their stuff - Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, James Cromwell, Sarah Paulson, Joseph Fiennes and, of course, Jessica Lange, who revived her career thanks to the show.
At the same time as Murphy devised this formula, streaming services like Netflix were taking off. People who once struggled to stay committed to a series with an overriding, intricate plot could now binge-watch at their leisure. Since American Horror Story led the way, others have followed, with producers realising limited anthology series are sure-fire ways to create buzz, while actors enjoy the freedom to sink themselves into a meaty role with no long-term commitment. If The West Wing, The Wire and The Sopranos were part of the first wave of great TV, anthology television is surely the second. Here are six other anthology shows you should know about.
Fargo began its life as an Oscar-winning movie by Joel and Ethan Coen, but it works even better as an anthology series. In fact, it’s one of the best shows on TV right now. The characters in the three stand-alone seasons of Fargo are loosely connected through the generations, but each season is essentially a separate crime story linked by nothing but great actors (Billy Bob Thornton, Kirsten Dunst, Ewen McGregor), baffled small town detectives, incompetent crims in over their heads and quirky, frozen, Minnesota goodness.
Season one was one of the best things on TV that year, bringing together Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey to chew the scenery, ponder the mysteries of life and solve a pretty grisly murder at the same time. Season two? Not so much. I mean, when you’re trading one of those two for Vince Vaughn, you’re bound to be disappointed. Season three was put on the backburner for a few years but it’s apparently now all systems go and we're just waiting for a cast announcement.
The Girlfriend Experience
This sexy series follows a young law intern as she takes up a side job as an escort while juggling her classes and her burgeoning legal career. Produced by Stephen Soderberg (who directed the original movie on which it's based), it will continue with a second season, but with an entirely different cast and an as-yet-unknown plot. Presumably, there'll be just as much sex, nudity and girlfriend-ing.
When it comes to anthology TV, there isn’t a lot taking place outside America, mostly because the market isn’t as large and there isn’t room to take risks. But non-US import The Missing is a fantastic exception. The British series covers the disappearance of a child abroad - the first season follows a fraught search for a young boy in France; the second, a young girl in Germany. The seasons stand alone in plot and characters - the only similarity being a missing person and the main detective, Frenchman Julien Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo), on the case.
American Crime Story and Feud
Not content to just anthologise horror, Ryan Murphy has now built his entire career around stand-alone series television. (Anything, I presume, to make people forget he also forced Glee upon the world.) American Crime Story and Feud are his other babies - the former kicked off with the infamous OJ Simpson trial and the latter's first outing took us behind the scenes in the battle of wills, egos and histrionics between screen legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Once again nabbing amazing talent - Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon, John Travolta, Judy Davis and, of course, Jessica Lange - both shows were successful enough to warrant orders for second seasons and will respectively cover the post-Katrina crime wave, and delve into the messy marriage of Charles and Diana.
I can’t wait.
Fargo season three airs Wednesdays at 9:30pm on SBS. Missed the last episode? Watch it right here from SBS On Demand: