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TV’s Newest Trend Is Very Old

The “anthology series” wave picks up steam with the Duplass brothers’ ‘Room 104’

Mark and Jay Duplass (Getty Images)
Mark and Jay Duplass (Getty Images)

Mere months after their first cable series was cruelly taken from us, OG micromoguls — it’s a thing! — the Duplass brothers officially have another HBO show in the works. It’s a comedy called Room 104, and it will star not a person, but a place: a hotel room, with the occupants and their high jinks switching out week to week.

In other words, it’s a true anthology series — instead of rebooting itself season to season, as is increasingly de rigueur, it’ll go episode by episode. TV has been inching this way for a while: What began as a semisuccessful attempt to save Ryan Murphy from himself rapidly evolved into a Cary Fukunaga launching pad, a Coen brothers mixtape, and in a true sign of legitimacy, a broadcast network’s attempt to get in on the action.

Even as the seasonal anthology has grabbed headlines, though, the unit of storytelling has quietly shrunk even further. This started, as so much American TV does, with a British import. Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, alternately a searing exploration of technology’s effect on human nature and Old Man Yells at Phone, has made stand-alone episodes from the start in 2011 — and beginning this October, it’ll do so on American television, where it’ll make its debut as an official Netflix coproduction. And then there’s High Maintenance, the web series turned better-funded web series turned soon-to-be HBO show that features a nameless weed dealer as its only constant. Any first-time viewers who come with its new home won’t need to know anything except its ingeniously simple premise.

Room 104 thus caps the microtrend. But as indicative as the episodic anthology show is of current TV, it’s also a note-for-note echo of old-school — like, very old-school — TV.

For its eerie science-fiction bent as well as its structure, Black Mirror has long earned comparisons to The Twilight Zone. Episodic anthologies, however, go back even further than that, to the live dramas where Twilight creator Rod Serling — along with future industry heavyweights like Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet — got their start. Before TV switched to prerecorded, serialized stories, which were both cheaper and more efficiently distributed, 1950s-era “television shows” were essentially plays simulcast from New York soundstages: self-contained stories united under rubrics like Playhouse 90, Philco Television Playhouse, and The Ford Television Theater.

In 2016, however, the industry has cash to burn, allowing creators to revert to the old world’s often-pricier but more formally experimental setup. It’s somehow both perfectly contemporary and the biggest throwback possible. And even though the anthology revival is largely happening on cable and streaming services, it almost precisely mirrors networks’ attempts to crib from their own origins: The live musical boom of recent years started with NBC rummaging in the closet of its past and coming up with a decidedly retro strategy for attracting same-day viewers.

We’ve reached the point where TV isn’t just rebooting movie concepts and specific shows — it’s rebooting itself, going all the way back to square one for guidance at a time when the medium feels similarly wide open. Time is a flat circle, and so is television.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.