Trendspotting: The Episodic Anthology Series Provides a Break from Binge-Watching

RIP adult attention spans.

The Netflix original Easy, created, written, and directed by the indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg, is a series of loosely related episodes centered on love and sex, all set in Swanberg’s adopted hometown of Chicago. In one episode, a married couple with young kids try some role-playing on Halloween; in another, a young woman going through a breakup contemplates her next move. Easy is the latest in a string of recent anthology series that don’t just switch up the story each season, like American Horror Story; on these programs, every episode offers a new story and set of characters.

High Maintenance, which premiered on HBO earlier this month, uses a similar storytelling technique. The show, which began as a web series in 2012, follows Brooklyn weed dealer (“the Guy,” played by co-creator Ben Sinclair) and his sundry clientele. The HBO episodes highlight the links between each of the Guy’s clients — his is a referral-based service, after all. As the Guy weaves in and out of his clients’ apartments, the show pauses to offer a window onto their lives. While each of the web series episodes focuses on a different character, in the HBO series, most episodes feature two stories — sometimes related, sometimes not.

You don’t need to have watched the High Maintenance web series to appreciate the new episodes, but it does add another dimension to the HBO version, which features some of the same characters from the earlier installments. And you don’t need to watch all the episodes of Easy, or watch them in chronological order, to enjoy the show or understand what’s going on. Another show that follows this format is IFC’s spoof series Documentary Now!, which recently premiered its second season. Created by stars Bill Hader and Fred Armisen, along with writers Seth Meyers and Rhys Thomas, Documentary Now! parodies a different well-known doc in each episode of the series, which is framed as a retrospective on seminal documentaries of the past 50 years.

Documentary Now! Season 2

There’s an obvious benefit to this style of storytelling: It’s easy on the viewer. You don’t have to follow 10 or 20 episodes’ worth of continuous plot. If you don’t like an episode, you can skip it without having to worry about losing the season’s thread. This trend feels like an inevitable byproduct of “Peak TV”: with hundreds of shows now available to watch at any moment — and still just 24 hours in a day — it’s a relief to watch an episode of TV that doesn’t require you to go back and check recaps to see what happened when you fell asleep in the middle of last week’s installment, or spend a weekend catching up on the first season so you can watch the second without having missed anything.

The episodic anthology format might seem tailor-made to the era of infinite streaming video and endlessly refreshable social media feeds — if your attention span is anything like mine, it’s worn to the bone. And yet the anthology was a hallmark of the very early days of television and radio. Black Mirror — another episodic anthology series that returns for a third season on Netflix in October — is often compared to The Twilight Zone, the sci-fi classic that aired on CBS from 1959-1964. Both present standalone episodes that function as little fables about science, technology, and morality.

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There were plenty of these anthology series in the 1950s and 1960s. Early television was populated by a lot of variety shows — many of which evolved from radio programs — that were basically vehicles for the advertisers that sponsored them (some of these shows even sold their names to their sponsors: The Colgate Comedy Hour, Sunkist Premiere Theater, The Philip Morris Playhouse, General Electric Theater — hosted by Ronald Reagan! — The DuPont Show of the Week, etc.). Other sci-fi programs in the early 1950s, like Science Fiction Theater and Tales of Tomorrow, also aired episodes that stood on their own, like a book of short stories.

With the exception of the 1993 anthology series TriBeCa, which aired on Fox for one seven-episode season, this trend largely disappeared until a few years ago, with the premiere of American Horror Story in 2011. But even that show tells one story throughout each season; TriBeCa, like Easy and High Maintenance, featured some recurring characters — Joe Morton and Philip Bosco appeared in every episode — but each story revolved around a different set of characters whom we never see again.

I suspect the recent revival of the episodic anthology series is a result of two things. First, more indie filmmakers are working in television right now (High Maintenance is often compared to a short film, and Easy is Joe Swanberg’s first foray into TV). Second, there’s the appeal of a show that doesn’t require a major time commitment in the age of binge-watching. That “commitment” part gets at the real allure of these kinds of shows: It’s not just that you don’t have to invest too much time in them — you don’t have to invest a whole lot of emotional energy, either, because it’s likely you’ll never see any of these characters again.

Of course, if an episode is good, its length is irrelevant; High Maintenance can engineer stunning pathos in under ten minutes. In our social media-obsessed, tech-addled, screen-heavy world, sometimes that’s all the emotional investment you can spare.