There's an emerging trend in U.S TV for cable dramas to have seasons that deviate from the preceding one, becoming anthologies. FX's American Horror Story started the ball rolling, when creator Ryan Murphy announced its second year wouldn't continue the 'haunted house' plot of its inaugural run. Instead, AHS told a completely different story set in a crazy asylum, utilising some of the same actors.
HBO's True Detective went one further. It told a finite story over just 8 episodes, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, and those actors won't even return as different characters next year. The only continuity with True Detective season 2 will be the people making it, and the titular involvement of detectives. FX's Fargo is also doing something similar, with a recently-announced second season that will rewind from 2006 to 1979—although it will be, broadly-speaking, a prequel for Keith Carradine's cop-turned-diner-owner.
I'm relieved this change has happened, because the problem with many U.S dramas is they continue way past their prime. Too many great shows live beyond their creative peak and begin a clear downward spiral, and yet ratings don't actually slip very much. This is because the audience has become loyal to a fault, and great shows are thus allowed to wilt and die because it wouldn't make business sense to cancel them. Just look at Showtime's Dexter (peaked season 4, dragged itself to season 7), or HBO's True Blood (peaked season 2, has spiralling to season 7).
However, there is a danger with changing so much about a show between seasons. What if audiences loved something you don't or can't bring back? Over three seasons, AHS has worked because it kept a core group of actors, so it played on the idea of repertory theatre. Fans want to see those actors go through different forms of gruesome, scary experiences, in different roles and contexts. There's fun in seeing familiar faces play 'acting musical chairs'. True Detective and Fargo still have to prove they can keep their initial audience happy, but both will face tougher challenges. How much of people's love for True Detective was singularly down to that particular story and Harrelson and McConaughey's Emmy-nominated performances? Ditto Fargo, with its own quirky murder case and eccentric ensemble. A second season without Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton and Alison Tolman can't help but sound risky.
It'll also be interesting to see what happens when one of those shows has a truly awful season, when new actors and a fresh storyline fail to spark with the masses and ratings drop. Will the network's knee-jerk reaction be to revert back to continuing dramas that can sustain five years with the same characters and locale? Or will they take it on the chin and embrace the fact these shows can always rebound from bad runs. I know a lot of people who stopped watching AHS season 1, but actually came back for season 2 because it was offering something different. That doesn't really happen with non-anthology shows, unless positive word-of-mouth lures back lost viewers over time. And that's quite a rare thing, especially because serialisation (another popular trend) is such a barrier for casual viewers, who can't easily hop back on the train.
It's going to be fascinating to see if True Detective and Fargo can maintain their pop-culture kudos with vastly different sophomore years. True Detective's likely to cast more big Hollywood names, who find it easier to commit to these "miniseries" (Colin Farrell has been mentioned), while Fargo will be hoping their wintry location and offbeat tone is of stronger appeal than specific characters who live there.