Arts, Television

Anthology Television: The Bridge Between The Gold And The Silver Age

While the Silver Age is defined by its vast quantity of relatively good television programs, most shows of the Silver Age attempt to mimic the definitive qualities of Golden Age television. They have long-standing narratives, they air on considerably prestigious networks with steadily growing budgets, and their writing is generally more exceptional than your average CSI or Grey’s Anatomy drama. So has anyone done anything to distance themselves from the crowd? Has anyone reached back beyond the Golden Age?

Unless you lived under a rock this summer, at some point you probably heard about or saw HBO’s second season of True Detective. You might’ve been shocked or frustrated that that one guy wasn’t actually dead, and you pushed through to the last episode to see how it all played out. A friend might’ve canceled your plans on the night of the finale saying, “Dude, I need to see how it all ends. It’s over after tonight.” The point here is Colin Farrell’s time on True Detective went on for eight weeks, and now it’s over. The hype over his story has passed, and now it’s up to next season’s cast and story to carry on the True Detective lineage.

True Detective is part of a genre that has started to make a big comeback in the Silver Age of television: the anthology genre. Before the expansive, linear narrative style grabbed  such a foothold  in mainstream television, anthology TV actually made up a majority of what viewers watched. Even comedies like Friends and Seinfeld or sci-fi programs like Doctor Who or The Twilight Zone have a quasi-anthological atmosphere about them. You can watch practically any episode of Seinfeld without  any previous experience with the show to understand what’s going on. Most sitcoms follow this same format. They might ask you get to know the main characters in order to fully appreciate the program, but generally speaking, most of these shows are readily accessible at any point their series.

Shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, however, changed the scenery. They asked that their viewers progress through them cover to cover as if they were a novel or, more literally, from premiere to finale. Events that occurred in season one of The Sopranos would be essential to something that happens in season three. If you weren’t aware of that first event, the show wouldn’t forgive you of your negligence and would steamroll right past you. Breaking Bad is almost infamous in this regard. Viewers were asked to remember minute details from the end of season two at the climax of season five, and those minute details subsequently turned into huge impacts.

Looking across the board, these prestigious  narrative programs are now credited for bringing about the Golden Age of television. Sure, in some cases they stretched beyond the timeframe, but this format is what differentiated these programs from the TV shows that came before them. Now that the Golden Age is over, television has gone back to the  anthology series, but now they are being produced in a different style. Now, anthology series are being presented in a seasonal narrative format. In an effort to compress the Golden Age format, seasons now are  not breaks in the story, but are each a fully developed story.

Anthology programs conform to what Silver Age viewers really want. Most shows in the Silver Age are designed to be binged through in small  time frame. Now, especially with streaming services that make entire seasons of shows available, people go through TV shows in a relatively quick amount of time and then move on to another series. Anthology shows ask viewers to only stick with a story and its characters for a small amount of time. Anthology programs also allow viewers to skip seasons that are either not critically acclaimed or particularly interesting to the audience. Because viewers in the Silver Age ask for less time-consuming television experiences than the longer narrative epics of the Golden Age, anthology programs conform to this desire.

With the ever-growing field of genres—rom coms, fantasy, disaster—that have been revived and developed in the Silver Age of Television, anthology programs have helped some of these genres come to life. While crime and detective programs have less of a creative scope to them, shows like Fargo, American Crime, and True Detective explore myriad intriguing settings and stories with each season produced.

Without American Horror Story, the television horror genre would be limited to pseudo-reality haunting profiles and The Walking Dead. A long running horror series is difficult to conceive. Keeping up  prolonged and well-developed tension throughout a multi-season program seems near impossible. In order to accomplish this, American Horror Story’s creators explore a wide spectrum of horrifying settings. In season one we are thrown into a demented and disturbing haunted house. In the next season we are committed to an insanely creepy and Nazi-affiliated mental asylum. We then meet the pristine witches of New Orleans and their rival, raggedy voo-doo priestesses. Season four takes us down south to Jupiter, Fla., and asks us to join the circus, even if it most definitely costs us our lives. And now, in season five, we’re residing in an erie and inhospitable hotel. Regardless of how you feel about the show, you cannot deny the fact that American Horror Story has journeyed through an astounding array of settings that only the anthology format could allow.

The anthology trend represents a combination of aspects of the Golden Age television series and characteristics of Silver Age atmosphere. Viewers want to see well-developed storylines and interesting characters, but they don’t want to spend six seasons and dozens of hours going through a series to get the same results. Thus, anthology television, if done well, finds a suitable solution between these two almost contradictory concepts. With anthological television, viewers and creators are trying to find the best of both worlds.

Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Editor

October 22, 2015