What is an anthology series, and what are some examples?
We are still in the midst of peak TV – hold on to your hats – and there’s no sign of this slowing down any time soon. Established networks such as HBO, NBC, ABC are releasing quality content on a consistent basis, Netflix is looking to continue its plan to take over the world, and it seems like every week a new streaming player is popping up, such as Freeform. With this comes a large variety in the type of TV shows that are released. One of the formats that has regained popularity in the last few years is that of the anthology show. But what exactly is an anthology series?
It’s difficult to get lost in the TV landscape at this point, with networks releasing shows labelled as miniseries, event series, reboots, rebootquels, etc… The definitions have become so flexible that even awards shows struggle to submit shows in the right categories. But just because “anthology series” are often placed in the “miniseries” category of award shows, that doesn’t mean the terms are synonymous.
When you hear someone mention the term “anthology series” about a television show, what this originally meant is that every episode of a continuing TV show resets the narrative. The tone of the series is usually kept, but a new story is being told, with new central characters at the center, usually portrayed by a different cast. We’re saying originally, because at this point the scope has expanded, and this could be just as well be story and characters changing from one season to the other as opposed to from one episode to the other.
Some popular examples of anthology shows are:
- The Twilight Zone (1959-1964): Still perhaps the most famous anthology show of the last century, the stories at the center of The Twilight Zone were always introduced by host Rod Serling. What followed were stories of a science-fiction, fantasy, or horror nature. Some famous examples are Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, where William Shatner spots a creature on the wing of a plane, and Time Enough at Last, about the lone survivor of a nuclear blast’s love for reading books.
- Tales from The Crypt (1989 – 1996): If you were a kid in the 90s, you should be familiar with the crypt keeper, the skeleton host of this HBO show. This horror show used the E.C. comic books from the 90s as a basis. Although it went off the rails in the later seasons (including one season with all episodes shot in the UK), during its heydays Tales from the Crypt was a fantastic mix of pitch-black comedy and gore. No wonder it attracted talent such as Tom Hanks, Demi Moore, Joe Pesci, Kyle MacLachlan, Patricia Arquette, and Dan Aykroyd,
- American Horror Story (2011 -): Even if it’s not the best of the lot, credit should be given to American Horror Story for reinvigorating the anthology format. As is usually the case for anthology shows, the setup is of a supernatural/horror-type nature. The biggest difference here is that the stories don’t wrap up in one episode, but one season. American Horror Story viewers weren’t aware they were watching an anthology show, until the ending of the 1st – and best – season: Murder House. The following seasons focused on – among others – an asylum, carnival freaks, and witches.
- True Detective (2014 – ): The anthology format is perfect for attracting top talent, as it allows them to dabble in the world of television without getting tied to a role. HBO’s True Detective abandoned the usual genre constraints of anthology TV (Science Fiction, Horror) in favor of a tale of crime and obsession. The first season starred Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, and is one of the great TV triumphs of this decade. The second season (starring Vince Vaughn, Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams) was widely seen as disappointing, but the upcoming third season starring Mahershala Ali (Moonlight, House of Cards) looks to be worthwhile. This is where the strength of the anthology format comes to play, as a bad episode or season can just be ignored as the storyline doesn’t need to be continued.
- Black Mirror (2011 – ): Not all current anthology series focus on a season-long , with Black Mirror being a modern example of this. The British show (originally on Channel 4, now Netflix) focuses on technology gone wrong in modern society, and has delivered several stunners over the last few years. If you need convincing, check out The Entire History of You, in which people have an implant that allows them to record everything they see and hear.
- Guillermo del toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities (2022): Perhaps the most recent example with some pedigree behind it, is acclaimed mexican filmmaker Del Toro’s newest horror anthology. As is to be expected with Del Toro as creator: there are lot of tales influenced by HP Lovecraft’s work (an American horror writer best known for creating the Ctulhu mythos). As is to be expected from an anthology show, this is unfortunately a bit of a mixed bag. We did very much enjoy these episodes though: The Autopsy, The Viewing and The Murmuring. Keep in mind The Viewing is very divisive, with a lot of people hating it. If you only check out one episode of this on Netflix, we recommend The Autopsy.
Those listed above are what we think are the most notable anthology series on television. That doesn’t mean nothing else is out there, just a few more examples are Outer Limits, Amazing Stories, Fargo, American Crime Story, and Masters of Horror.