Anthology writers on the challenges and opportunities in the genre-forward medium.
The anthology has roots in modern radio, and has been on-screen since the dawn of television: from Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone, all the way to today’s Room 104 and American Horror Story. Defined as a series—be it radio, TV, film, or even video game—that has a new storyline and characters each season (or even each episode), an unprecedented number of anthologies are finding their way on-screen, and more writers are developing and staffing these genre-forward programs than ever before.
An April 13 panel event, “Same Show, New Characters—Investigating the Anthology Series,” discussed the development and execution of varied anthologies, both episodic and seasonal, with questions like: How are anthologies built differently than traditional narrative series? How do you keep the audience coming back without an unresolved narrative question? What are networks looking for when buying, developing, and producing anthology series?
Presented by the WGAW Genre Committee and moderated by M. Miller Davis, panelists on the April 13 event included Women of the Movement creator Marissa Jo Cerar, ROAR co-creators Liz Flahive & Carly Mensch, Fargo creator Noah Hawley, and Two-Sentence Horror Stories creator Vera Miao.
When it came to approaching the pitch for their anthology series, each writer had a different path to the greenlight. For Vera Miao, the pitch for Two-Sentence Horror Stories was one of the last ideas she offered up in a series of conversations. She says the pitch was less about how she would structure the series, and more about the references, content, and talent she was able to assemble for the episodic horror anthology. But with each episode being a standalone piece, producing the series was like “producing ten or more mini-movies on the television timeline.”
For Noah Hawley, FX had already bought the right to make a Fargo TV show from MGM, and Joel and Ethan Coen had signed on to executive produce when he was brought into the discussion. At that time, Hawley said the talk was of doing Fargo as a show, but without Marge, because it would be impossible to top Frances McDormand’s performance in the 1996 film (written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen). To put it bluntly, Hawley says the challenge was “to do a show of the movie without any of the movie’s characters in it.”
“Basically, the task was, you’re auditioning to be a Coen brother.”
A tall order.
At the beginning of Fargo (the movie), a card appears on-screen telling the audience that what they are about to see is a true story. “And [Officer Marge Gunderson] has seen the worst case she’ll ever see by the end of the movie,” Hawley rightfully says. That meant that when writing Fargo, the show, “it wouldn’t feel real or true anymore if she woke up the next day and had another Coen Brothers case.”
This is where the anthology medium comes into play: Before the movie, “the word ‘Fargo’ is evocative of a type of place, what Joel and Ethan Coen call ‘Siberia with family restaurants.’ After the movie, [Fargo is] a type of story,” Hawley continues. Each season of the show has a different cast of characters, a different location and crime, but a similar tone and the classic Coen Brothers tension between comedy and horror, graphic violence and dry humor.
“Every year I get the same note, where it just doesn’t feel like last time,” Hawley says, noting that he always pitches a moment or a specific scene: two men meet in an emergency room, or a woman is driving home with a man’s legs sticking through her windshield. “With anthologies, you never stop pitching.”
Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch were writing an episodic anthology based on existing property (the collection of short stories of the same name, by Cecelia Ahern) with ROAR, which premiered on Apple TV+ in April. The pair said that the basis for each episode is given away in the title, such as “The Woman Who Ate Photographs” or “The Woman Who Was Kept on a Shelf,” but the episodes dig into the why things happen—often playing with surrealism to do so.
When it came to pitching the show, Flahive and Mensch had already partnered with one of the show’s executive producers, Bruna Papandrea, as well as Nicole Kidman (the titular woman who ate photographs, as well as an executive producer herself). Walking into the pitch with star power and producers attached was helpful, since anthologies can often be a hard sell—new cast, sets, and sometimes even new worlds for each episode or season means money—but the writing duo pitched the way they would adapt six of the stories from the book, as well as two originals.
Since the collection of short stories spans multiple genres, the challenge for Flahive and Mensch in writing the anthology was to honor the source material while using their own creative license to tell the stories they wanted to tell.
For Marissa Jo Cerar, she knew she wanted to tell Emmett Till’s story from his mother’s vantage point for the first season of Women of the Movement; but when it came to pitching Season 2, she did a whole presentation on other lesser-known women from history whose stories she wanted to tell. While the show has yet to be picked up for a second season, she has already written the bible for it.
“The goal of the show is to bring light to these stories that have been in the dark,” Cerar says. And while the prominent characters in Season 1 are based off of people who have passed away, in preparing for Season 2, she’s been able to work with living people which is helpful in determining how far back in their lives to go when telling the story. Cerar acknowledges that she could work forever on writing the “perfect version” of a historical story, but at the end of the day, she has to have things ready in case it gets renewed.
Hawley says that Season 1 of Fargo got picked up in December, but because the show takes place in the winter and they couldn’t shoot for another eleven months, he asked for a 12-week writers’ room. Like the movie, the show is both funny and horrifying, with laugh-out-loud comedy and edge-of-your-seat suspense. Hawley says often comedy writers are the most successful in the Fargo rooms because many of the story beats have a setup/punchline element to them—even when somebody’s getting murdered.
The first season of Two-Sentence Horror Stories was digital short-form, and Miao wrote every episode herself. The show is currently on its fourth season, airing on The CW (the first three seasons are available on Netflix), so writing in space for commercial breaks is a factor now. But with no formal IP to adapt—though the genre of two-sentence horror stories is popular on internet forums like Reddit—every storyline was made up from scratch. And because it’s a horror show, the challenge was to balance genre with character.
Flahive and Mensch said they realized each episode of ROAR needed to feel singular since the stories didn’t have a through-line. They wanted each writer in their room to feel passionate about taking on a specific story, and did so by handing each writer the book, asking them to come back with a story they connected to, and then kicking the ideas around in the room.
The stories would often lead Flahive and Mensch toward certain genres, but they would have feelings about those genres, such as how westerns can often be misogynistic. So, what to do about that? Put two teenage girls at the center of a western episode, for example.
Including multiple genres in one show was part of the selling point, they acknowledged, but made the show harder to produce “because we were really starting from zero every eight days,” echoing Miao’s sentiment.
But anthologies do something many long-running TV shows cannot: they have endings, and more than just at the end of the series. Miao—a self-described “lover of endings”—explained that while most successful shows run for many seasons, anthologies really break that mold. “Horror in particular doesn’t work without an ending,” she says.
So while the nature of anthologies means there is no cliffhanger to leave audiences with between each season, in a business model designed to keep viewers coming back, Hawley says the question is instead: “What feeling do you leave them with, and do they want more of that feeling?”
If you’re interested to join WGAW’s Genre Committee, visit our website.