Once associated with the early glory days of television, the anthology drama has lately experienced a welcome revival. The genre, sometimes known as a ‘portmanteau’, refers to a television series which presents a new set of stories and characters every episode or season – and in its latest wave of innovative, top-quality programming, has proven itself a genre still worth getting excited about.
It’s like television’s answer to a book of short stories: a collection of tales linked together by a common thread, however tenuous, but also which work as individual tales in their own right. They might explore variations on a certain theme, on a particular plot scenario, or perhaps on a style of narrative. One of the pioneers of the genre, Roald Dahl’s 1980s ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ series, for instance, comprised a series of suspenseful storylines which would always lead to a surprising final twist, while Dawn French’s murder mystery comedy Murder Most Horrid (1990s) featured a fresh plot scenario every episode, with the lead actress/writer alternating between different roles.
Though it might sound formulaic, it’s anything but. While other series’ are often bound by the same characters, contexts, and the constraints of a long-running, linear storyline, the anthology drama is relatively free to roam. Jimmy McGovern’s award-winning The Street zooms in on the lives of different families living in the same neighbourhood. Accused investigates the backstory of characters who await their verdict in court and the lead-up to their supposed crime. There’s even the daytime drama Moving On, like a modern version of ‘Play for Today’, which encompasses a group of stories each revolving around the titular theme.
Of course, this broadness of scope is why TV executives have historically been reluctant to commission the anthology genre. Demanding new locations, expensive cast lists, and an audience’s uncertain commitment to a programme which might change every week, it might seem too impractical and financially ambitious a venture. And yet it would seem that those TV executives have now wisened up to the artistic (and commercial) merits of this type of drama – namely in the limitless, innovative potential for story-telling.
With each narrative evoking a range of perspectives, the format can also achieve a more profound examination of its recurrent theme or idea. For instance, Kay Mellor’s The Syndicate, which recently aired its third series, explores how the lives of ordinary people changes when they win the lottery. Each series paints a different picture and guides us down a new path: while the first two featured supermarket staff and hospital nurses, the latest instalment looks at the staff of a bankrupt country estate and how their sudden fortune subverts the traditional upstairs/downstairs dynamic.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the genre’s potential for imaginative writing is Inside No 9, the black comedy written by and starring Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. With every episode taking place inside any number 9 address – whether that be a terraced house, a sleeper carriage on a train or the dressing room of a West End theatre – the narrative possibilities are endless. One episode transports us to the 17th century witch trials in the fictional village of Little Happens, rife with mockery; the next satirises surburban family life during a grandmother’s birthday party, which unravels in the style of Abigail’s Party. The tone shifts between light and dark across episodes as well as within them; its influences range from Hitchocock to Ayckbourn. The series is an experimental triumph.
What the strength of the anthology drama indicates is that audiences are interacting more intelligently and intimately with television. Rather than resorting to tired, sensationalist storylines, this is a genre which thrives on new ideas and often ambiguous points of view. Nothing happens next: we’re left to mull over the meaning of a self-contained story rather than simply wait for tomorrow’s episode. In that sense, it transforms television into a medium akin to theatre, promoting thought and reaction, rather than passive participation.
Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the anthology drama was associated with television’s previous heyday. No longer the lazy hub of reality shows and half-baked documentaries, television has re-established its capacity for talented writing, creative programming and enriching viewing – and the anthology series continues to propel it in the right direction. Long may it continue.