‘Fargo’ and the New Approach to Anthology TV
The inimitable Matt Zoller Seitz has a piece in this week’s New York Magazine that discusses the trend of anthology TV, which is currently experiencing a resurgence. Seitz keenly addresses why anthology series work so well in our instant-streaming world, but readers shouldn’t come away thinking that anthology television has always been so successful. It’s had a difficult, often squalid history, and only recently has “anthology” not been analogous to “RIP.”
The anthology television series was, in its original incarnation, basically grandfathered in from radio. Listeners could tune in every week to hear a new standalone story, which was particularly effective with genre shows — weird fiction, science fiction, horror. Television’s embryonic favored high-brow anthology series transcribed the aesthetics of theater to the small, boxy confines of living rooms. NBC’s Kraft Television Theater was the first major anthology series in 1947, offering adaptations of Alice in Wonderland and A Christmas Carol. The Philco Television Playhouse ushered in what’s now (erroneously) considered the first Golden Age of Television — the series is now fondly remembered for Marty, which was turned into an Oscar-winning film two years after its television debut. No one wants to talk about how Marty was a rare highlight during a time when television was stodgy, stuffy, and boring.
TV anthologies hit their stride with the now-iconic Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. Both shows dealt in one-hour standalone stories that had no consistent characters or plots, but which were interwoven with recurring themes and aesthetics (murder and morally conscious surrealism, respectively), book-ended by familiar hosts. Alfred Hitchcock, one of the biggest directors in the world, introduced and ended each episode with his distinct English drawl and penchant for puns. (This is right around the time François Truffaut and the Cahiers du Cinéma were reappraising Hitchcock as an auteur, not just a maker of fun escapist flicks.) He only worked on a handful of episodes, including the seminal Roald Dahl adaptions “Lamb to the Slaughter” and “The Man From the South,” but his name (and silhouette) were enough to wrangle and ensnare viewers.
Rod Serling and his beloved twist endings provided a similar thread of familiarity for viewers. Every week, you knew what you were in for: an ominous, yet tranquil-voiced introduction, a story too weird to be mistaken for reality, and an ending you wouldn’t see coming. Once this formula was established, the show had enough going for it to garner a small but dedicated cult following (perhaps the first cult following in television.)