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August 04, 2017

So Many Stories to Tell

Anthologies offer storytellers lots of options.

T.L. Stanley
  • The Guestbook

  • The Guestbook

  • Room 104

  • Room 104

  • Room 104


If these walls could talk, what would they say?

That was Greg Garcia’s question to himself as he was holed up in a Big Bear cabin several years back, letting his mind wander between writing scenes for his Fox sitcom, Raising Hope.

What he came up with was a fantastical story about a couple of friends, a contentious card game and a fork to the eye that he dashed off as a play-by-play piece of fiction in the rental’s guest book. He wrote it mainly to mess with the next occupants, not knowing at the time that the tale would spawn a new series, aptly titled The Guest Book.

“It was a random prank that turned into a series of short stories,” said Garcia, who kept scrawling, copying and leaving behind quirky and often outrageous accounts of what allegedly went on in various vacation properties. “Once I had about 14 or 15, I decided I wanted to film them and bring them to life.”

The result, which launched Aug. 3 on TBS, is an anthology series set in a picturesque mountain town that proves irresistible to a steady stream of oddballs, troublemakers and pleasure seekers. And they all spill their guts in the house diary during their stay.

Garcia is going for laughs, though The Guest Book isn’t a typical sitcom. In fact, it’s part of a growing trend on television that uses the anthology format or a hybrid of it to tell a variety of stories, from romance to comedy to slice of life.

Audiences are already flocking to cop, crime and sci-fi anthologies like Fargo, Black Mirror, True Detective and American Horror Story, so it was just a matter of time before creators and networks put a lighter spin on the format.

“When there are massive cultural hits like the dramas we’ve had lately, people start coming up with satire and comedy versions,” said Billy Wee, TBS’s vice president, programming. “An anthology is a digestible way to watch a show, and yet it feels unpredictable.”

The newest anthology, HBO’s Room 104, from the Duplass brothers, leans into a number of genres as it chronicles the goings on in a nondescript motel room in Anytown USA. It joins several existing shows like the premium cable channel’s own weed-infused High Maintenance and Netflix’s Chicago-set rom-com, Easy, both headed for second seasons, YouTube Red’s Bad Internet and Hulu’s digital-age dramedy, Dimension 404.

And there are plenty more anthologies on the way, including a project from comedian Bobcat Goldthwait called Misfits & Monsters for TruTV, a reboot of Heathers, described as a “pitch-black comedy,” for TV Land, and TBS’ Miracle Workers, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Owen Wilson.

Based on the Simon Rich novel, What in God’s Name, Miracle Workers has elements of a workplace comedy and a rom-com, with well-meaning angels and a disillusioned God. Heaven and earth will be represented in sort of an epic and ethereal Upstairs Downstairs, according to network executives.

Miracle Workers will follow the Fargo path of being a season-to-season rather than episode-to-episode anthology. It’ll air at least seven episodes in its first season, expected next year, also taking a page from the short-and-sweet trend of limited runs.

“We’re constantly looking for ways to make the viewing experience more rewarding,” said Colin Davis, TBS’s senior director of original programming. “At a time when there are so many programming choices, this isn’t so daunting or overwhelming. Audiences know they’ll have a payoff for their investment in a certain number of episodes.”

The short-order anthology works well for some writer-creators whose ideas might not fit into a traditional mold, said Jacob Robinson, TBS’ director of original programming.

“What if the stories they want to tell don’t lend themselves to six seasons?” he said. “An anthology gives you much greater latitude in storytelling.”

Anthologies have a long and fruitful TV lineage, from horror classics like Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt up through Ryan Murphy’s current FX hits Feud and American Crime Story.

Comedy examples are tougher to find, said Tim Brooks, TV historian and co-author of the Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, with Love Boat and Love, American Style being among the few that have left an impression, mainly because they shared a common trait.

“The more successful anthologies had some degree of continuity,” Brooks said. “Maybe it’s a repertory cast where some of the same faces pop up again and again, or it’s a thread that runs through everything and holds it together.”

In the case of Miracle Workers, showrunners and network execs plan to use a now-established model of repeating the tone and sensibility in subsequent seasons, a la Fargo. Stars and locations may or may not recur.

Garcia, whose show is an episode-to-episode anthology, intentionally chose to ground the series in a small town with consistent characters. So the visitors to Froggy Cottage, among them Michael Rapaport, Jenna Fischer, Jaime Pressly and Stockard Channing, come and go.

The locals, played by Kellie Martin, Garret Dillahunt, Laura Bell Bundy and Carly Jibson, among others, stick around for all the hijinks. (They cause a fair amount of the chaos, as well).

There’s also a band, the duo Honey Honey (Ben Jaffe and Suzanne Santo), that plays original and cover tunes in each episode, acting as a musical connective tissue for the show. They perform at the hamlet’s one point of interest, its nudie bar, and pop up as regular characters.

A personal fan of anthologies of all types, Garcia, an Emmy winner for My Name is Earl, said The Guest Book has given him a newfound freedom as a writer.

“This format means I can just be weird, do things differently and take big swings,” he said. “When I introduce new characters each week, I don’t have to worry about where they’ll go in the future or if they’re huggable or loveable. Sitcoms are a lot about likeability and rootability, and sometimes that can be the enemy of comedy if you want to do something extreme and cutting edge.”

Another advantage is that the always-changing anthology stands apart, he said, in a sea of well-worn and familiar sitcoms.

“Because the story keeps twisting and turning, you have to pay attention,” he said. “A regular sitcom can be background, with cooking and laundry going on, which is the way a lot of people watch them.”

The format was a boon when it came to casting, Wee said, since a role on The Guest Book called for no more than a few days for busy actors like Margo Martindale, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Lauren Lapkus, Michaela Watkins and John Ortiz.

“That was really appealing to talent that might’ve been leery of committing to a full series,” Wee said. “They could be in and out, and in many cases do something different than what they’re known for.”

Wee’s open to other anthologies, and he expects to see more of them on television and over-the-top streaming services. And he’s already thinking about season 2 of The Guest Book, which he said he’s “excited to explore.”

“It’s such an interesting way to tell both episodic and serialized stories,” Wee said. “It’s sneakily ambitious.”

Garcia, meantime, has enjoyed making his first anthology (he’s the entire writer’s room and an executive producer) and creating for cable, as opposed to broadcast, which had him feeling less restrained but not “off the leash” for its own sake. Foot fetishes, blackmail, an arrow through the chest and pot brownies are fair game in The Guest Book, for example, but there are no pixelated private parts or swear words that required a bleep.

And since he still has a cache of guest ledger stories (he used about a half-dozen of his tales in The Guest Book’s 10-episode season, but not the one about the poker playing-eye gouging friends), he’s also planning ahead. And if anthologies start to proliferate, he’s fine with that.

“Look at how many procedural dramas there are, or single-camera comedies,” he said. “There’s room, and the cream will rise. And as a viewer, I’d be thrilled to watch more anthologies. You don’t get bored with them. They could be anything week to week. That’s what makes them so fun.”

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