Do 'anthology series'​ signal a return to original storytelling?


Recent entertainment trend offers an alternative to ‘back-cataloguing’.

In December, BBC Radio 4’s Front Row held an end-of-year cultural quiz. One of the questions was: ‘What TV series will change most of its cast in 2019’. Three answers were shouted out: Great British Bake Off? Doctor Who? True Detective? Steig Abel had to admit that, though they were all good suggestions, the answer he was looking for was The Crown, with its all-new cast, fronted by current monarch of British drama, Olivia Colman. The first rule of quiz writing is that questions should only have one possible answer, so shame on the Front Row editorial team for letting that one through. However, the multitude of possible responses may highlight an interesting new shift in commissioning patterns, particularly given the recent trend for rehashing old ideas.

Disney is the prime offender here. Particularly since its purchases of Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars, Disney has become the master of generating self-perpetuating revenues, simply by turning to its own back catalogue. The three main techniques they employ are a) releasing sequels of pre-existing properties (Mary Poppins Returns, Toy Story 4, Frozen 2 and Avengers 4 will all play in cinemas this year), b) releasing titles that sit within a familiar universe (ref. anything Star Wars or Marvel) and c) simply remaking stuff for a new generation, presumably with nostalgic parents (Dumbo, Aladdin, The Lion King and Lady and the Tramp are all getting live-action releases in 2019). Warner have Harry Potter and DC Comics, Paramount have Transformers, but no one has quite managed to match Disney in its near-invincibility at the box office. As Ben Fritz says in his book The Big Picture “Disney proves that it’s possible to create release slates on which almost every movie is a hit, generating profits beyond anything seen in Hollywood before”.

And the titles listed above are just cinema releases, not to mention all the rehashed stories we’ve seen on TV in recent years, from a UK Christmas schedule including Les Miserables, Watership Down and Still Open all Hours, through to recent US reboots Queer Eye, Sabrina and Lost In Space. Add to that that the endless series runs that outstay their welcome, plus the creeping influence of the entertainment ‘universes’: there have been at least six Marvel Universe-set TV shows on Netflix in the last four years. (Admittedly this may not be the case for much longer, given Disney’s forthcoming streaming service will ensure all its sequels, prequels, universes and remakes can happily live together on one platform). From a financial perspective, it makes sense. Producers know that borrowed interest is more likely to bring audiences than an unheard of concept. And to date it’s been a successful business model, albeit arguably one requiring limited imagination. Which is the issue for critics who claim that Disney is out of ideas, and that creativity is suffering across the industry. Likewise, for marketers, these trends don’t tend to throw up the most interesting briefs. There’s either a need to reinterpret an old proposition, or a case of simply saying “X is back!”

So it’s interesting that, in light of the growing criticism that audiences are getting tired of flogged-to-death series (House of Cards, 24, The Walking Dead all spring to mind…), TV producers appear to have started moving towards more of an anthology model. In terms of originality, black comedies Inside No. 9 and Black Mirror have led the way here, with bespoke storylines for each episode. However a new style of anthology seems to be emerging, in which a new series storyline, and, in many cases, an entirely new cast, can run under a pre-existing title, effectively offering the best of both worlds: the borrowed interest from a familiar name, but the freedom for original writing. True Detective is a great example, exquisitely written and acted, but with no connection between the different series. Likewise with American Crime Story, Fargo, and now even Narcos, the trend appears to be picking up momentum, with more and more series trying to push out of the established model.

Surely this can only be a good thing. Producers can reap the rewards from the populist draw of familiar show titles, but are no longer tied to flagging plotlines and ever-inflating cast contracts. Marketers and promo makers can benefit from inspiring and ever-changing briefs, even for sequential series of the same show. And audiences can now dip into series at any point they like and, most importantly, can enjoy some good old-fashioned original storytelling once again.

Christopher Godfree, Head of Client Services