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Castle Rock arrived on Hulu back in 2018 as a new kind of Stephen King adaptation featuring some familiar Stephen King faces. The series was an anthology with some connections between seasons, and King himself had much kinder words for Castle Rock than for another TV adaptation. Now, however, Castle Rock has gotten the axe, and it raises a question: does the cancellation indicate that Stephen King TV shows shouldn't be anthologies with loose connections between seasons?
The first season of Castle Rock was packed with Stephen King Easter eggs, to the delight of eagle-eyed fans of King's decades of books and short stories, although all but the most blatant were probably lost on viewers without an extensive knowledge of his novels. The story of Season 1 itself was more or less original to the series. The second season served as something of a Misery prequel, with Lizzy Caplan starring as the young Annie Wilkes.
The good thing about the anthology nature of the series is that the cancellation doesn't leave any massive cliffhangers that will go unresolved, although there are some unanswered questions. Deadline reports that a third season wasn't expected even before news of the official cancellation broke, and there are reportedly no plans for Castle Rock to get a second life on HBO Max despite the HBO streamer adding other Warner Bros. TV series to its library. Would this be the case if Castle Rock had been marketed as something other than an anthology?
Although Stephen King is famous for delivering frights and has some diehard fans, Castle Rock doesn't have the same name recognition as a lot of other projects, and Season 1 ended on a fairly confusing note. With no promise that the show would tackle some of King's most legendary books and no guarantee that the show intended to actually answer the leftover Season 1 questions due to the status as an anthology, Castle Rock arguably didn't gain the horror foothold it could have. Even tweaking the titles to clarify the connections (or lack thereof) could have added more viewers.
Admittedly, I find myself comparing Castle Rock to American Horror Story, which is even more of an anthology in how it recycles its actors. American Horror Story changes it title for each season, starting with American Horror Story: Murder House and going on to include American Horror Story: Asylum, American Horror Story: Coven, and six others, with still more to come. With the success of that series, I can't help but wonder if "Stephen King's Castle Rock: Misery" would have generated a lot more buzz for the series than "Castle Rock Season 2."
It's also easy to compare the second season of Castle Rock as a more or less origin story for Misery's Annie Wilkes to Netflix's smash-hit Ratched as an origin story for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's Nurse Ratched. Name recognition makes a difference, and I say that as somebody who loved Castle Rock Season 1 but lost some of that excitement during the wait for the next chapter of the anthology, especially since the Season 1 finale seemingly hinted at the next season diving into a Shining-esque story rather than Misery.
At the end of the day, I think Castle Rock could have become a big hit with a potentially long run if it had either embraced more of a serialized ongoing story based on one particular project or gone in more of an American Horror Story direction as a full-on anthology. Shows ranging from Game of Thrones to American Gods to even The 100 and The Vampire Diaries adapted and then expanded on source material; Castle Rock could have done the same. The establishment of a multiverse in Season 1 meant that the sky could have been the limit, if the show would just take full advantage of the possibilities.
None of this is to say that Castle Rock was a bad show, or that Season 2 was so bad that the show deserved to be cancelled. It was a solid show, and I think it could prove to be pretty rewatchable. I just think that Stephen King TV shows could be much better either serialized into multiple seasons of a continuing story or separated into one-off chapters, potentially in a multiverse that could allow for connections without forcing them.