Alexandra Cunningham, showrunner on Bravo's "Dirty John," is a little upset these days. As she's recently learned, her favorite show, "Counterpart," has been canceled over at Starz after just two seasons. "It's just been torn away from me," she says. "I'm so invested. I lived in fear that this was going to happen."
Cunningham is not alone. For all the discussion about the Golden Age of television, networks have not exactly stopped canceling shows, often abruptly and without warning. That's hardly new. But a change in modern television viewing may offer a solution to that heartbreak when it happens.
Viewers now are turning to quality TV that requires less investment — shows that are untethered from a single group of characters, genre or even story. Anthology TV, in all of its various forms, is a wave from the medium's past that's been reinvented — and it's more popular than ever.
"We're so inundated with television in general, and if you're going to invest 13 hours of your time to understand it, that's a commitment," says Ben Sinclair, star and co-showrunner (with Katja Blichfeld) of HBO's "High Maintenance," which presents a different story every week and just one recurring character: Sinclair's weed deliveryman.
"With an anthology series," he continues, "you can catch a little bit of it and walk away and feel satisfied. You don't have to commit so much."
Classic anthology series have long been part of the American TV landscape, but they've been hit-and-miss with quality, and finding the right platform has been a challenge until recently. The success of single-season anthology series including FX's "American Horror Story" and HBO's "True Detective" have put a new spin on the accessibility of short-investment, name-branded TV, launching the likes of “High Maintenance,” CBS AllAccess' reboot of "The Twilight Zone" and Netflix's "Black Mirror." The genre provides the ultimate grab bag: a changing story every season — or even every week.
"Everyone's had that conversation, 'Oh, you've got to watch this show, it gets really good at Season 2,' " says Charlie Brooker, "Black Mirror" creator (and executive producer with Annabel Jones). "With us, you can just say, 'Watch this one episode.' We were keen from the start to establish different flavors, styles, approaches and genres. You don't have to worry about signing up for another 16-part season of something. It's easier to get a quick fix."
Subsequently, the concept of the "limited series" has also transformed, because no series feels limited anymore. "Dirty John" began as a true-crime podcast (from the Los Angeles Times and Wondery) and appeared to come to a natural end with a single season. But its televised version has a two-season order, and Cunningham is now working on what that will look like.
"The franchise of the show, for me, is true crime meets love gone bad, and there are many, many different angles from which to tell that story," she says. "Shows like 'Big Little Lies' and 'Stranger Things' were theoretically supposed to have a built-in shelf life too. It's like a safe way to test the water, and see if people respond to it."
A show such as Hulu's "Castle Rock," on the other hand, was always intended to be a long-form anthology with a very specific brand: the Stephen King universe or, as executive producer and co-creator (with Sam Shaw) Dustin Thomason calls it, the "King-dom."
"We want to tell stories and play songs in the key of Stephen King — even if it's not the tune he's written," he says. "And the only way to embrace the ‘King-dom’ is to build this tapestry of stories rather than follow one cast of characters."
Television's newfound malleability comes not just from the success of a few hits that broke through a barrier, but through the very concept of what it means to "watch" a series. Audiences are consuming multiple screens of content at a time, and don't necessarily want to invest in a show that asks for a lot of time without guarantee of a satisfying ending or, for that matter, any real ending at all.
In addition, streaming services are providing creators with the ability to redefine just how long an "hour drama" is even supposed to be: Amazon's "Homecoming" featured half-hour dramatic episodes; "Castle Rock" had varying-length episodes throughout its first season.
"Not every story has to be the same length," says Thomason. "There's something amazing about not knowing when an episode is going to end."
All of which seems to put show creators in the driver's seat in a way they haven't been accustomed to — something “Black Mirror’s” Brooker says has been a long time coming.
"Most films have a bit they could do without," he says. "Over 90 minutes, you could take out, like 15, 20 minutes. You should be encouraged to be shorter if you need to be shorter. No one has that much time left on this planet. Let's hurry it up a little."