Modern Anthology Series Could Revolutionize Television

TV is reinventing the anthology with shows like Fargo, True Detective, and American Horror Story. Our TV critic examines what the form allows producers, writers and executives to do.

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"Fargo" will return to FX for a second season. The series shares the name of a famous movie, though the plot and characters were different. Turns out the second season will also be completely different than the first season. "Fargo" is an anthology series, an old TV format made new again. Here's our TV critic Eric Deggans.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Back in the late 1950s, anthology shows on TV sounded like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC, "TWILIGHT ZONE")

DEGGANS: The "Twilight Zone" was a prime example of the old-school television anthology. It had a different science fiction or fantasy tale every week, like a TV version of a book filled with stories. Today's TV anthologies are little different. They tell a single story across the whole season, sometimes with big movie stars in lead roles. Consider FX's "Fargo," which cast Oscar-winner Billy Bob Thornton as a hit man so dangerous, he threatened a cop who dared to pull over his car.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FARGO")

BILLY BOB THORNTON: (As Lorne Malvo) I'm going to roll my window up. Then I'm going to drive away. And you're going to go home to your daughter. And every few years ago, you're going to look at her face and know that you're alive because you chose not to go down a certain road on a certain night.

DEGGANS: But fans who love Thornton on "Fargo" better curl up with a DVD, because when the show returns next year it'll be filled with new characters, played by different actors, set in a different time and city. What will stay the same in "Fargo" is the mood. And that style which grounds a fictional story in a realistic setting is described by writer and producer Noah Hawley, using a particular term.

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NOAH HAWLEY: It's about creating truth-iness out of falsehoods.

DEGGANS: Hawley adapted "Fargo" from the 1996 Coen brothers' movie.

HAWLEY: So why did they call it "Fargo?" You know, it's because the word itself is so evocative. It's a state of mind, really. And so for us it's - "Fargo" is a type of true crime case, where truth is stranger than fiction.

DEGGANS: HBO is using a similar approach with its crime drama "True Detective." Last season, movie star Matthew McConaughey earned an Emmy nomination playing Rust Cohle, a damaged Louisiana detective who delivered a legendary speech on life.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRUE DETECTIVE")

MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: (As Rust Cohle) Someone once told me time is a flat circle. Everything we've ever done or will do, we're going to do over and over and over again.

DEGGANS: Like Thornton, McConaughey was willing to do one season of the HBO series because he saw it as a really long movie. In fact, "Fargo" and "True Detective" feel like a transition point between movies and television - long enough to tell a broad story, but short enough to make every episode count. And since storylines don't continue to the next season, the stakes are higher for characters who can be killed off or change dramatically.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC, "AMERICAN HORROR STORY")

DEGGANS: The show that created the modern, new anthology series was FX's "American Horror Story." Its three seasons are all wildly different. The first season was set in a modern-day haunted house, the second in a 1960s era asylum and the third in a witches' coven in New Orleans. Unlike "Fargo" and "True Detective," "American Horror Story" uses many of the same actors, playing totally different roles from year to year. Co-creator Ryan Murphy said, during a panel discussion at the Paley Center for Media, that such change helps keep the show fresh.

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RYAN MURPHY: It's always so fun for everybody to do the opposite of what we've done the year before. And the thing we're working on now is the opposite of what we did last year. It's so creative and refreshing to reboot it every year.

DEGGANS: Today's anthologies have tweaked the model for modern audiences. Viewers don't have to learn a new situation every week, while the show's quality and brand name bring fans back for new seasons - at least that's the plan. We won't know if "Fargo" and "True Detective" really work as anthologies until their new seasons kick off next year. But there's a sense that a new form of television has emerged. It's a high quality bridge between film and TV series that just might tell stories better than either one. I'm Eric Deggans.

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