The Weekend Read: How Our Minds Got Big Enough to Handle the TV Anthology

03.22.15 4 years ago

A few years ago, when I was a fledgling screenwriter, I pitched a TV show. It was an idea cooked up with legendary producer Warren Littlefield, so I had the opportunity to tour the networks and cable channels with our project. The show was called Coup. The idea was simple: a young Los Angeles club promoter gets in over his head when he decides to overthrow a foreign country in order to save his mother, who had been captured by that country. Okay, it wasn”t that simple. It was quite complicated, in fact, and I wrote a precise outline that I had memorized and could say in about 8 minutes if my nerves remained steady and I didn”t throw up all over myself.

As part of the outline, I had a list of 12 things a person would need in order to overthrow a country, (an army, an inside man, a stash of money, etc) which not so coincidentally mirrored the number of episodes I imagined for our initial run, culminating in a 13th episode in which our hero”s plan was either going to succeed or fail. (Spoiler alert: he succeeded.) Many of our prospective buyers liked the idea. They described it as creative and “outside the box” (By the way, “outside the box” is the most inside the box way of saying outside the box.) But there was one problem that concerned everyone: What happens after the first season?

That”s when I ran out of the conference room as fast as I could. Just kidding. I had broad plans for seasons 2-5, based on the notion that our hero wins in the first season but now has a foreign country to run and absolutely no experience and would probably find himself dealing with an internal revolt and a war or two. But that involved changing the whole set-up in season 2 and probably every season after that. No matter how meticulous I was in my pitch, and no matter how charming Warren was, executives couldn”t pull the trigger. They were looking for 100 episodes of familiar yet compelling TV. Changing the basic premise every season wasn”t how TV was done.

About 8 years later, producer Howard Gordon would independently come up with a similar idea and turn it into a series called “Tyrant” on FX. Warren Littlefield would produce the anthology show “Fargo,” Daniel Fienberg”s favorite show of 2014 (I agree), a show in which the basic premise changes every year. And me? I”m drinking copious amounts of whiskey and wandering the streets, grabbing the lapels of strangers and screaming about how I was once ahead of my time.

Actually, I look back at the whole experience and l feel pretty good about it. My instincts were not completely off base. The fickle definition of “commercial” in Hollywood is based on what”s recently popular, preferably in the last 6 months. A project considered ill-advised one year is trendy the next. (Alas, poor Crossbones. Alas, poor HIEROGLYPH!) So I can”t take it personally when a TV executive regards my ideas with a blank expression that says: “How long do I have to hold this blank expression?”

Now we are in an era where shows can be something different every season. Just as “Lost” and the advent of Netflix instigated the bing watching trend, “True Detective,” “Fargo” and “American Horror Story” have given us the rise of the anthology show. It”s viable for a show to have a new premise every season, perhaps connected to the previous material, but that connective tissue is no longer a vital element. A series of mini-series under one title opens up a lot of creative opportunities. e can kill off characters with ease, even the lead, especially because the actor will be available to play another role next season. Now we don”t have to spread a story too thin just to keep it going. Maybe I”m a little biased, but I wish this trend had come around a little earlier. Not just for me, but think of the other shows that would have benefited.

Take “Homeland.” By most accounts, including mine, the first season of “Homeland” was brilliant. But Showtime famously would not let the producers go with their original plan to kill off the Brody at the end of the 1st season because they didn”t have confidence the show could succeed without actor Damien Lewis. We know the downside of that decision. The show twisted itself into a pretzel justifying Brody”s continued existence, forcing us to endure Dana Brody”s tedious misadventures and the Vice President”s woeful security team. Some say the show has bounced back since finally eliminating Brody in the third season, but by then, I had lost interest.

Sticking to a specific formula has damaged long running shows, too.  “24” ran out of stories and it ran out of moles. Yes, Jack Bauer is cool. No doubt about it. But we know Jack Bauer and tech genius Chloe are going to live and everyone else is cannon fodder. I can”t decide if Jack is really lucky or unlucky. I do know he”s an unstoppable, unkillable madman who will stop at nothing to save America from a terror crisis that just so happens to last 24 hours. But what if “24” were more realistic and more about how fallible humans behave during a global crisis? What if we saw different crises around the globe with different lead characters at the helm? What if Jack Bauer starred in one season, was absent another season, and only showed up as a supporting character in yet another season, allowing for a more daring, unpredictable show. 

This may blow your mind, but I think the American version of “The Office” ran just a teeny bit past its expiration date, clocking in at 9 seasons (the original British office was only 12 episodes plus a Christmas Special).  If “The Office” insisted on staying on the air, perhaps the creators could have depicted another office in another region of the country, where office politics might be different, with a different bad boss, and with a different makeup of people. It may not have sustained an audience, but it may have been more creatively alive. Or it could have been cancelled it. That was also an option.

Would any of the classics shows have benefitted from an anthology format? Even with its weaknesses, “Twin Peaks” is one of my favorite shows of all time. I don”t necessarily think turning it into an anthology would have made the show better, but it may have made it more penetrable for a wider audience. If the show could have solved the Laura Palmer mystery in season 1 and picked up season 2 with a different story with different leads but intersecting characters, would we be on season 26 of “Twin Peaks” right now? Okay, yes, I”ll take 2 seasons and 3rd season 25 years later, but I still say the anthology format could have rescued that 2nd season.

The anthology show has given us so many more possibilities. Let”s take it even further. “American Horror Story” will always be in the horror genre. It says so in the title. What about a show that switches genre, as well as characters and story? Okay, this might be a little outside the box (I know) but let”s take the show “Suddenly Susan.” This was a sitcom in the late 90″s that I”ve never seen and I don”t even know what it was about other than it starred Brooke Shields. But I always liked the title “Suddenly Susan”. What if “Suddenly Susan” was about a hilarious woman named Susan trying to break into the fashion industry in one season but in another, it”s about a man who suddenly becomes a woman named Susan? Or maybe the entire population of the earth turns into a woman named Susan. That would be confusing (and enchanting like Jean-Pierre Jeunet film). There are so many possibilities here. Maybe “Suddenly Susan” could be about a serial killer named Susan who surprises people. Would you see that show? I know I would.

Of course, there has to be rules. I think a show has up to the end of its first season to declare itself an anthology show. Otherwise it might seem disingenuous to declare that in it”s sixth season, “Walking Dead” will no longer be about the zombie apocalypse and now about people in the afterlife wandering the clouds of heaven. Also, you can”t start with too specific a premise.  A show called “Jake and the Fatman” can only be about a person named Jake and his rotund male associate.

As television has become more fragmented, the content has diversified. More shows means more platforms which means more opportunity for experimentation. The business has caught up to what I accidentally knew years ago. Serialized anthology is a good thing for television. There are better odds that a show can rebound from a bad season. The stories are less likely to run too long. And there are more opportunities to sign noteworthy actors who want to headline one season but not eight seasons.  

Does anyone want to buy my take on “Suddenly Susan?”

Jonathan L. Davis is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles with his wife, baby, two dogs and television. If you need him, he”s on twitter @Jonathanldavis.

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