American Murderer Serial: why are there so many crime anthology shows?

The sweet spot between prestige and pulp; soap opera and procedural

Have you heard about TV's hot new crime anthology? The one that tracks a single investigation in depth over the course of a season, then moves on to a new story with different characters the following year? Surely you know the one — the ads have been inescapable, the timeline chatter incessant.

Of course, at least half a dozen TV shows matching that description have premiered in the past two years. One, the Emmy-winning American Crime, returns to ABC for a second season this Wednesday (the premiere episode is available for free right now on iTunes). Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton, who last year portrayed divorcés reeling from their son's murder, are back this season as the headmaster and basketball coach of a private school rocked by alleged sexual misconduct among athletes. Lili Taylor, Richard Cabral, Elvis Nolasco, and Regina King also return in new roles, and André 3000 gives new meaning to "So Fresh, So Clean" as a bourgie suburban architect.

The idea of installing a repertory cast into new roles each season recalls American Horror Story, but American Crime actually isn't the new crime anthology from the makers of AHS. That's FX's forthcoming American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, which distinguishes itself by its movie-star talent — Cuba Gooding Jr., John Travolta, Jordana Brewster, Nathan Lane — and by dramatizing the most famous criminal trial in American history. Yet when American Crime Story premieres early next month, viewers programming their DVRs could be forgiven for confusing it with American Crime.

anthology series haven't been this numerous since the early days of TV

Those same DVRs might still be stuffed with episodes of Noah Hawley's Coen brothers reboot Fargo, which recently concluded a wildly entertaining second season involving the collision of sharp Minnesota cops, an untamed North Dakota crime dynasty, ruthless corporate Kansas City mobsters, a bumbling young married couple in over their heads, and the occasional UFO. Hawley's show shares tendencies with HBO's True Detective, another eerie, gruesome, star-studded anthology, which, although fictitious, has filled both thematically dense seasons with the kind of minute details and sense of place that characterizes true crime. But Fargo overlaps just as much with a verifiably true story that has been dominating social media since its release on December 18th: Netflix's Making A Murderer, a documentary miniseries involving violent crime, questionable police work, and I-can't-believe-it's-not-parody Upper Midwest accents in smalltown Wisconsin. Making A Murderer was preceded last year by another hit true-crime doc, HBO's miniseries The Jinx, which contributed to Dr. Robert Durst's arrest on murder charges. And Serial, the podcast that became a sensation in 2014 investigating a teenager's controversial murder conviction, will be adapted for TV by Phil Lord and Chris Miller.

American Crime

Timothy Hutton in season two of American Crime (ABC)

Crime anthologies haven't been this numerous since the early days of TV, when the genre transitioned from print and radio to the small screen. Back in the 1950s and '60s, televised anthologies proliferated. Westerns, sci-fi, history, mystery — anything that could be classified as genre entertainment had its own Tales or Theatre or Playhouse. Usually a new cast told a fresh story each week, often derived from true incidents. That practice continued when NBC's Police Story resurrected the archetype in the ‘70s and again with ABC's FBI: The Untold Stories in the '90s. But anthologies were already a relic by then, and even relatively recent titles like ‘90s horror shows Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Tales From the Crypt have now been off the air for decades.

So why are true crime and "true crime" anthologies suddenly stacking up almost as fast as bodies in Sioux Falls circa 1979? Partially because another bygone storytelling method, the miniseries, has returned to prominence, often under the guise of "limited series" (technically there's a difference, though practically they function about the same). As prestige TV retreats from Sopranos-style obliqueness toward tightly constructed narratives with crowd-pleasing conclusions, limited series have become the medium's exciting new frontier. The crime and mystery genres, with their focused storylines and promise of resolution, happen to adapt seamlessly to the format.

In retrospect, the rise of limited series was inevitable. Even as TV's auteurist golden age won the medium a respect previously reserved for cinema, the advent of weekly episode recaps, live-tweeting, and seemingly infinite choice increased the pressure to reward viewers' investment. No show had ever ramped up viewer engagement like Lost, but after its finale left viewers feeling stranded and several other hits overstayed their welcome, showrunners began catering to an increasingly loud demand for resolution. As Andy Greenwald put it at Grantland, "It's a very contemporary notion, this idea that prestige TV series all have one core story to tell. It's the sort of framework that makes sense for expertly constructed diving bells like Breaking Bad ... but not something as intentionally digressive as Mad Men."

In that environment, limited series make a lot of sense. It's easier to stick the landing on a single-season arc than to shepherd a narrative through years of twists. Movie stars looking to experiment with TV roles are more willing to sign on for a short-term project. And rather than face the challenge of keeping beloved characters from stagnating, showrunners benefit from a fresh influx of personalities each year, reality TV style. HitFix's Alan Sepinwall saw the possibilities back when True Detective was becoming the pop cultural inferno that lit the fuse on this anthology miniseries trend: "If [Rust Cohle and Marty Hart] are thoroughly used up by the end of eight episodes... it won't matter, because no one will have to figure out how to get Carrie Mathison back into the CIA or keep the Sons of Anarchy out of prison yet again."

Fargo Season 2

Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons in Fargo's second season. (Chris Large / FX)

Limited series offer upside for viewers, too. In an oft-discussed speech last August, FX president Jon Landgraf lamented what he called "peak TV," an era bloated with so much quality scripted programming even professional TV critics can't keep up. With subscription platforms Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu entering the fray and networks abandoning the ancient concept of a fall premiere season to launch new shows year-round, about 400 scripted series competed for eyeballs in 2015. For culture consumers inundated with options — and, like, trying to maintain a life outside of television — a story that wraps up in 10 episodes is enticing. You could binge-watch an entire season of Fargo in one lazy weekend day; you're not committing to 60 intricate Shakespearian hours of The Wire (though let me be the 4,910th fanatical David Simon disciple to insist you totally should).

Limited series present a formal sweet spot between a feature film and a traditional episodic show that makes them TV's closest equivalent to a paperback novel. So police work, a subject that lends itself to pulp fiction, has proven ideal for this format. The one-and-done nature of crime stories made them a mainstay of TV's procedural industrial complex — a crime happens, it's investigated, it's solved, and Mariska Hargitay is on to the next one. As American Crime creator John Ridley explained to Variety, the current wave of crime anthologies blasts open new possibilities for that formula: "We wanted to take incidents that sometimes in other shows tend to be week-to-week and episodic and not just use them merely as plot points, but really see how they play out with family, how they have a cascade effect over time, and with the community as well."

In other words, these nouveau crime anthologies crossbreed the instant gratification of a procedural with the depth of prestige TV, a needed creative shakeup that could theoretically appeal to fans from both sides of the procedural / prestige divide. Naturally, the TV business is investing in this untapped space between HBO and NCIS, and anthologies in other pulpy genres are forthcoming.

But considering it pioneered the modern limited anthology series, it's surprising the success of American Horror Story hasn't spawned other horror anthologies. That looks set to change with Sy Fy's creepypasta series Channel Zero and Lifetime's Shakespeare-gone-horror anthology A Midsummer's Nightmare. And in other fantastical realms, ABC is digging deeper into its Once Upon A Time lane with True Love, a post-feminist fairy tale series, and HBO is remaking the Israeli anthology House of Wishes, in which people get to relive defining moments of their lives. Hannibal's Bryan Fuller is rebooting Steven Spielberg's 1980s sci-fi / fantasy anthology Amazing Stories for NBC in the old-fashioned weekly anthology style. And although no one has actually announced plans for a Twilight Zone revival, how stoked would you be?

Historically, closed-ended shows have been a passing craze. Anthologies went extinct because viewers preferred characters that could age, soap-opera style, into old friends (or nemeses) and networks wanted to invest in shows they could keep promoting for the long haul. But the current anthology boom isn't just recycling the past, it's an exciting new storytelling model all its own, one responsible for some of today's most flavorful popcorn entertainment. Bemoan the decline of arthouse TV if you must, but as these anthologies continually remind us, there are far worse crimes than populism.