In the first Golden Age of Television, which lasted throughout the 1950s and 1960s, viewers were treated to weekly television series that transcended storytelling and production expectations on all fronts. With a multitude of series capturing the public’s attention and competing – for the first time ever – with film on a creative and critical level, television saw itself rise to new heights and change the expectations of weekly entertainment.
With the rise of quality TV came the advent of the anthology series; which was a show revolving around a particular genre or theme, but whereby each week’s episode would feature an entirely new plot, setting, and characters. With these original anthology series, television shows weren’t afraid to reinvent themselves week to week, and therefore they often provided some of the most exciting – and to this day, memorable – content of all time.
As television changed over the decades, giving way to police procedurals and reality shows, the anthology went away for a while; that is, until the era we’re in now; The New Golden Age Of Television. With this New Golden Age came new anthologies, this time dressed up for modern serialized, binge-watching, Netflix-addicted tastes. Instead of disconnected weekly episodes, modern anthologies changed the formula and told closed-ended stories for a whole season before throwing out everything and starting again.
Both types of anthologies have their merits and both have brought us some of the freshest, most original, most creatively-daring, and oftentimes most (thrillingly) scattershot storytelling of all time. With that in mind, we decided to take a look at the 10 Best Anthology TV Series of All Time.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents
Early television was extremely experimental, often changing its formula throughout its run to find something that fired on all cylinders. Alfred Hitchcock Presents was no exception, airing on and off from 1955-1965 on CBS, then on NBC, in both half hour increments and hour long doses (with a title change to The Alfred Hitchcock Hour thrown in for good measure).
Experiments in format aside, Alfred Hitchcock Presents is generally considered one of the best written series of all time, and throughout its 360 episode run it produced many classic episodes and iconic scenes that are prevalent in pop culture to this day. Filled to the brim with notable actors – including Steve McQueen and Walter Matthau – and directors – like Robert Altman, William Friedkin, and of course Hitchcock himself – Alfred Hitchcock Presents was a weekly display of genius wrapped in a series of well-told suspense tales and mysteries.
Not limited by sci-fi genre constraints that similar series such as The Outer Limits had, Alfred Hitchcock Presents solidified the anthology as something unpredictable, with classic episodes adapted from various Roald Dahl stories, such as the Emmy-winning “Lamb to the Slaughter” and “Man from the South.” With each episode featuring Hitchcock himself walking out of his iconic silhouette title sequence, wishing the audience a “good evening,” and introducing the story we are about to see, Alfred Hitchcock Presents was event television from a time when watching television was an event.
When it comes to recent anthology series, the show that comes to people’s mind is surely True Detective, although it really should be American Crime. Though both series focus on the investigation following a grisly murder, American Crime concerns itself more with the emotional and sociological damages that the crime brought on, rather than with True Detective’s obsession with the occult, flat-circles, and little Beer Can Dolls. Though the first season of both American Crime and True Detective are modern-day masterpieces, American Crime has something that (fair or unfair; based on air dates) True Detective does not; an unblemished record.
Filled with standout performances, beautifully cold cinematography, and an unflinching tone that’s admirable for a primetime ABC series, American Crime debuted to less than stellar ratings this year but has nonetheless been granted a second season. With the key cast set to return in all new roles in an all new story, American Crime has the chance to show True Detective how to get a second season right, and how to deliver an anthology that gets better rather than falls off a cliff into oblivion.
American Horror Story
True, when American Horror Story debuted, viewers watched an entire spectacular season without knowing that what they were seeing was not destined to continue after the end of the first season. So when the dust from the series finale settled and viewers learned that everything – except some of the cast – would be thrown out the window next year, people were understandably upset by the bait and switch.
Nonetheless, American Horror Story is still going strong in its fifth season, and in many ways is responsible for the current resurgence of anthology series to our televisions. Whatever your opinion may be of diminishing returns on seasons, the one thing people can’t say about American Horror Story is that it isn’t interesting.
Filled with seasons of orgies, gimps, witches, dismemberments, demon-rapes, 1950s David Bowie covers, and other made-up-sounding events, American Horror Story is the most consistently strange and experimental series on television. With each season set in a different horror sub-genre or location, often featuring a variety of A-list stars, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s gruesome creation is one that can keep reinventing itself year after year and never run out of steam. American Horror Story will probably live on forever, and like the best dismembered gimp orgies, we kinda don’t want to look away while it’s still going on.
Are You Afraid of the Dark
Are You Afraid of the Dark owes as much to several classic entries on this list as the modern entries owe to Are You Afraid of the Dark. This 90s Canadian children’s television show is in many ways the precursor to American Horror Story, focusing on horror tales told around a campfire in a delightfully campy way by a group of teenagers known as “The Midnight Society.” Because everyone knows midnight is the most badass time of night, and the only thing that can top it is sitting around a fire.
Filled with its fair share of surprisingly dark episodes, Are You Afraid of the Dark is to Goosebumps what a werewolf is to a spider. Are You Afraid of the Dark left a generation of terrified children in its wake, and with each episode of crippling atmospheric horror and morally ambiguous parables, the series solidified itself as a prime example of children’s television that you just wouldn’t see in 2015. Not to mention the excruciatingly horrifying title sequence, which still sends chills down our spines over two decades later.
Though fans watched for the new stories that unfolded week after week, what they probably didn’t know is they were also witnessing the beginning – or sometimes the peak – of many well-known actors’ careers, including Canadian Treasures Elisha Cuthbert, Jay Baruchel, and Emmanuelle Chriqui, as well as Gilbert Gottfried, Will Friedle, and Melissa Joan Hart.
Perhaps the only modern anthology series that wipes the slate clean every episode (all seven of them); the UK’s Black Mirror is a fantastic addition to the anthology pantheon, swapping out the horror for a new kind of tech-thriller-nightmare genre. While the production and performances of each episode are more than feature-film worthy, the best part of Black Mirror – by far – is its writing by series creator Charlie Brooker (and episode contributors Jesse Amrstrong and Kanak Huq).
With the series set to continue on Netflix in the near future, Black Mirror is in many ways the quintessential show of our time, not focusing on outlandish horror scenarios or dressing itself up in the past, but rather portraying a scarily believable future in which our tech-obsessed society has devolved into a sadly recognizable mess. Inspiring in its ambition and its solid track record (with an admittedly low episode count), Black Mirror has entered the zeitgeist in a – fittingly – very Original Golden Age of Television type of way.
FX’s Fargo is only entering its second season, but you better believe its first season was enough to grant it a spot on this list. Deviating perfectly from the original Coen brother’s source material – while still honoring it – Noah Hawley’s snow-drenched “true crime” series blew away all the competition when it premiered last year. Set in an original world and featuring a wildly shifting tone that proved more satisfying than any television show has any right to be, Fargo packed A-list talent into a series that got better with every episode – until culminating in one of the best season finales in recent memory.
With a brand new cast, plot, and time period this year, Fargo looks more than ready to deliver on the expectations that the first season made; and then blow them out of the water. The perfect thing about Fargo is its closed-ended nature, and being billed as an “event series,” it really feels like each season that we get of this gem is precious and not to be taken for granted. Producer Warren Littlefield has stated in the past that he doesn’t envision the show going continuing after a third season, so viewers better take what they can get and sit back and enjoy every little drop of Fargo that drips into this world. Because nothing else is gonna come close to its genius for a long time, doncha know?
Admittedly, considering Looney Tunes an anthology series is cheating just a bit, as the most famous characters popped up continually over the cartoon’s astounding 85 year history. But since the debut of the original shorts in 1930, Looney Tunes has been spinning reel after reel of totally bonkers cartoon comedy, with a weekly series still continuing to this day; and all of it has influenced all of us.
Starring all our favorite characters – including Bugs Bunny, Tweety Bird, Porky Pig, and Donald Duck – there’s no denying that Looney Tunes is a cultural institution; more so than even The Simpsons. With each episode consisting of multiple short “reels,” the anthology aspect of Looney Tunes comes into play when you consider that there’s no thru line to each episode, essentially cycling through its characters as other anthology shows cycle through acting troupes, and while the show sticks to a proven formula, each reel could serve as a pilot to its own series, each episode is delightfully disconnected from itself and reality, and each character – as well-known as they are after 85 years – is still just as capable of ever as making viewers of all ages smile.
Masters of Horror
Entering the world in a weird purgatory for anthologies, Showtime’s Masters of Horror premiered in 2005, long after the hits of the First Golden Age had faded, and just before the lights of the post American Horror Story-anthology boom had come up. Nonetheless, boasting an incredible group of writers and directors, the so called Masters lasted two seasons that were equal parts genius and insane before its cancellation.
With talent such as John and Max Landis, Tobe Hooper, and Mick Garris behind the camera, Masters of Horror presented a new one-hour film each episode; and thus there are 26 movies available for those that never had a chance to catch the series when it was on television. While some episodes were original and some were adapted from short stories by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, each Masters of Horror episode was innovative and timelessly familiar, often leaning on the tropes of the horror genre while blazing new trails within it.
The UK’s Skins is the only non-genre, non-crime series on this list, and one of the only anthology series in history to take a concept so simple and turn it into some of the best television of the 21st century. Focusing on the lives of a group of English teenagers, every second season of Skins ditched its characters like dead weight and rebuilt everything from the ground up. Sometimes this resulted in an exponentially more interesting show – as was the case after the first character swap – and sometimes it resulted in a catastrophic failure – as was the case after the second character swap. So while Skins’ legacy includes four astounding seasons, two nearly-unwatchable ones, and a great final season bringing back some of the shows’ most popular characters, the fact remains that though we could have spent forever with these characters (from the good seasons), we didn’t, and that’s what made our time with the characters of Skins so special.
Filled with controversial storylines that didn’t shy away from sex, drugs, profanity, or nudity, Skins was met with its fair share of criticism; criticism that was eventually overshadowed by praise. An emotionally rich coming of age drama filled with fully realized characters, Skins proved to be the rare show that excelled at everything. Despite its stellar writing – by a writer’s room with an average age of 21 – to its direction, music, and cinematography, the thing that really sets Skins apart from even the best “teen” shows was its acting. Filled with stars that have broken out or are about to, Skins was a step on the road of the careers of some of today’s most exciting actors, including Nicholas Hoult, Dev Patel, Kaya Scodelario, Jack O’Connell, and Game of Thrones’ Hannah Murray and Joe Dempsie.
The Twilight Zone
And here it is, the Golden God of anthology TV, the Holy Grail that all anthologies aspire to be, the very tip top of television. The Twilight Zone was instrumental in the paradigm shift that led from people mocking to TV as a time-wasting inferior to movies to eventually considering it a serious art that can accomplish serious feats.
Created, shepherded into the world, obsessed-over, and hosted by Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone is less of the mass-group effort that other anthology shows are, and more of a Rod Serling show, as he (along with Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson) was responsible for writing 127 of the show’s 156 episodes. Filled with more classic episodes than any series has the right to call its own, alongside the most iconic imagery and music in the history of television, The Twilight Zone utilized sci-fi, fantasy, suspense, and futuristic concepts and turned every episode on its head with its famous mind-bending twists.
All in all, The Twilight Zone is everything that television should aspire to be. Its scope is oftentimes breathtaking, its ambition falls into a category of its own, and its innovation is perfectly complimented by disconnected stories that change up its winning formula from episode to episode. With ambitious social commentary and moral parables that were far ahead of its time, The Twilight Zone inspired almost everything on this list and resulted in changing up the status quo for all the TV series that have followed it; anthology or not.
What’s your favorite anthology TV series? Is there anything you think we missed, or any must-watch episodes of the shows we listed above? Comment below and let us know your thoughts.