American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy looks to have revived the anthology television series as a popular genre of entertainment, as acclaimed series such as Fargo and True Detective have appeared in the wake of his one-story-per-season horror show.
These series tell seasonal stories, a somewhat new form of anthology television, separate from the classic structure — one story, one episode. For the sake of remembering television history and rediscovering a few classics, let’s look back at a few of the great anthology TV series. It should be noted that, for whatever reason, anthology series heavily favor the horror genre.
1. The Twilight Zone
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Decades beyond its original air date in 1959, The Twilight Zone still holds up as one of the greatest achievements in science fiction and television history, an anthology series founded upon groundbreaking twists and clever social commentary. The series’ enduring brilliance is due largely to its creator and host Rod Serling, who wrote a walloping 96 of the show’s 152 episodes, imbuing almost every one with a sense of political awareness that spoke to the late ’50s and early ’60s atmosphere without dating itself (for the most part).
2. Black Mirror
Charlie Brooker’s British television series Black Mirror feels something like an update of The Twilight Zone for an age of digital devices and sobering television. The hour-long episodes give the characters and stories room to breathe, allowing Brooker to craft stories that work even beyond their social implications. Most episodes are spectacularly depressing and deal with the human collateral of an age of ubiquitous electronic devices and digital dependence. In the third episode, a series standout, a man self-destructs and destroys his relationship primarily using an implanted device for one’s eye that allows him to watch his memories like reruns. The sad humanity of the man’s self-destruction and the oddly plausible technology makes the episode an immediate science fiction classic, like the whole series.
3. The Outer Limits
The original (and superior) version of The Outer Limits aired concurrently with many seasons of The Twilight Zone, and it’s easy to see how the two series might have been confused. In fact, there are a few key differences, as The Outer Limits leaned more heavily into science fiction rather than parable and speculative fiction. The textured cinematography gave the series a unique feeling, particularly at a time when most TV was predominantly artless in direction, and the stories were both fascinating and often existentially terrifying. The show is great, but it deserves a spot here if only for the iconic intro alone.
4. Alfred Hitchcock Presents
The acclaimed master of suspense brought his sinister obsessions and eye for unease to television with this anthology series, wherein Hitchcock himself would introduce each episode with a darkly comedic, droll monologue that set the tone for whatever creepy, crime-centric tale was being told in the episode. The episodes often had little in common beyond an aim to frighten and intrigue. Hitchcock’s sensibilities were nonetheless well-represented here, and it should be taken as the highest honor to say that the series feels like a worthy extension of his film work.
5. Tales from the Crypt
Tales from the Crypt announced its tone and intention at the beginning of each episode, when the decrepit and gleefully demented corpse called The Cryptkeeper would greet viewers using a purposely contrived pun. The juxtaposition was funny yet scary, much like the episodes themselves, which benefited from being shown on HBO — the writers could craft great horror because they could go in whatever direction they wanted and employ as much sex, gore, and profanity as the story deserved.
6. Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories
Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are two of the most unique voices in comedy today, and their creations — which synthesize absurdism and a purposely low-budget aesthetic — are always funny and strangely unsettling, so their branching out into horror comedy hardly feels unexpected. Their Bedtime Stories series stays true to their anarchic spirit, featuring 11-minute stories that will make most viewers feel confused about whether they should laugh or recoil in horror. There’s really no way to describe the difficult series, which pushes its anthology format into odd new territories.
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