When did anthology series become so darn popular again? The format was huge back in the mid-20th century with the rise of The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Outer Limits and shows like that, gripping millions of viewers every week with their tales of suspense and mystery and intrigue. Those shows were anthologies on an episode to episode basis. In each episode, there was a brand new story and setting and cast of characters to get used to. It wasn’t until Ryan Murphy cooked up American Horror Story a few years ago that the networks began making anthology series that they started introducing a brand new story and setting and cast of characters on a season to season basis. That’s when things really got exciting. Everybody wins with an anthology series like that. As a writer, you could tell a full story arc and flesh out a bunch of characters without getting tied down or going on for so long that you run out of ideas. From a business point of view, they’re essentially making miniseries, but with brand recognition, so there’s a much bigger viewership than your average miniseries. And since it’s only one season and not an open-ended deal, they can get A-list actors like Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey and Kathy Bates and Rachel McAdams to act in these things. So, since it works out for everybody, there are dozens of anthology series on TV today. Here are the 10 best!
10. Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams
Philip K. Dick is one of the most influential science fiction writers of all time. He gave us the literary source material for such cinematic sci-fi classics as Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report, while his influence can be seen in The Matrix, Inception, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Looper, Donnie Darko, The Truman Show, and countless other seminal sci-fi movies. He’s been described as the “Shakespeare of science fiction” by some literary critics. The influence that this guy has had on the science fiction genre – in literature and film and comic books and everything – is astounding. But despite all the movie adaptations and influences that have come from Dick’s works, there were still a lot of his terrific stories left unadapted. That’s where Battlestar Galactica creator Ronald D. Moore and Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston stepped in with an anthology series dedicated to adapting the works of Philip K. Dick. On the surface, Electric Dreams seems like a poor man’s Black Mirror, and in many ways, it is that. But considering that it’s from the mind of Philip K. Dick, this is a series full of all the most profound science fiction concepts ever cooked up by a human brain.
9. High Maintenance
Whether or not this show qualifies for a status as an anthology series is really up to interpretation. It depends on where you draw the line between an anthology show and a non-anthology show (whatever the word for that is). Is Doctor Who an anthology series? Every episode is different, with new settings and characters, so maybe that makes it an anthology series. The same logic applies to High Maintenance, a wonderful little comedy on HBO, in which the only recurring character is a weed dealer known only as “The Guy,” as he weaves in and out of his customers’ lives. The New Yorker’s TV critic wrote of the show’s format, “Freed of the constraints of thirty-minute or one-hour formulas, the episodes are luxurious and twisty and humane, radiating new ideas about storytelling,” while Downton Abbey actor Dan Stevens called it “a brilliant collection of succinct character portraits from a cross-section of New York society.” It is absolutely an anthology show, as it presents its stories in the lovely vignette format and changes things up every week. High Maintenance began its life as a web series that premiered each of its new episodes on Vimeo before being picked up by HBO for a cable television version. There have been two TV seasons so far, with a third ordered by the network and on its way.
When it was announced that Ryan Murphy would be making an anthology series where every season told the story of a historical feud, there was a resounding, “Huh? Really…?” It’s kind of a weirdly specific premise, so when it was first announced, there was a concern over whether or not there were even enough interesting feuds to make a substantial TV series out of. But the whole thing broke wide open when Murphy explained that they weren’t tied down to just celebrity feuds or just one specific period in history. Then it started making a lot more sense. The first season was about the rivalry shared by Bette Davis and Joan Crawford on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and it was great! Anchored by fantastic lead performances by Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, the series is gripping and poignant and a hell of a lot of fun. The second season, which has already been ordered by FX, will focus on the troubled relationship between Prince Charles and Princess Diana – the one who died tragically in a suspicious car crash a couple of decades ago – and it will be subtitled Buckingham Palace. As a drama about the British royals, it could rival The Crown. Hey, look, another feud!
Easy is a strange kind of anthology series. It’s a Netflix original and it tells the stories of people’s lives in the city of Chicago. That could range from some guys setting up an illegal brewery to a suburban neighborhood banding together to figure out who keeps stealing their mail to a married couple who decide to give open marriage a try. The half hour episodes will make you laugh and cry and open your eyes to all kinds of cultures – it’s one of the most diverse shows on TV (or the internet, technically), with characters of all different races and sexualities. Characters in this one can also cross over from episode to episode – in one episode, we follow Hannibal Buress’ journalist character as he tries to get an interview with the guys running the illegal brewery from a previous installment – and there are characters in season 1 who we pick up on in season 2 to see how they’re doing. Prolific low budget indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg has written and directed literally every single episode across the show’s two seasons. He’s a hard worker. There’s nothing he loves more than the artistic process – that’s why most of his characters are artists and why he once made six feature films in one year (that year was 2011). Highlights in Easy include Marc Maron as a graphic novelist with anger issues, Karley Sciortino as a writer who works as an escort to pay the bills (finally, the media gives us a sex worker who has a normal life and doesn’t need to be ‘saved’), and Kiersey Clemons and Jacqueline Toboni as a same sex couple with all the same problems that straight people have (homophobes will be shocked!).
6. Room 104
Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass practically invented the Mumblecore movement in the independent cinema market of the past few years. After making some low budget indies that generated a lot of interest in Hollywood, they signed a deal to create TV shows for HBO. First, they gave us the terrific comedy drama series Togetherness, which gave us a touching portrayal of middle aged family life, and then they graduated to something weirder and darker and more different. They’d made their mark and now, they were ready to shake things up. They created an anthology series set in a hotel room. Who does that? The Duplass brothers do that, that’s who. Each episode tells the story of a character or cast of characters staying in that one room, whether it be a comedic story or a horror story or dramatic story or whatever. Very few shows can flit between genres like that. A glowing Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus for the show reads, “Room 104 uses its anthology structure to its advantage, telling a series of short, eclectic stories that hit their marks more often than they miss.” There’s only been one season of the show so far, but more is on its way, as HBO’s top brass have renewed it for a second season.
5. American Horror Story
American Horror Story was the first one. Not the first anthology series, of course. That was decades ago. It started on the radio before television even existed! But the format of telling stories on a season by season basis, so that you do get the cliffhanger endings and the story arcs and the character development and the episodic nature of television, but you also get the new and exciting plotlines and characters and environments of anthology storytelling. With nothing but a connecting theme of twisted horror and some actors shared between seasons, Ryan Murphy and his team of sick-minded writers have managed to cover the full spectrum of the horror genre. They’ve done a haunted house, a mental asylum, a coven of witches, a freak show in the 1950s, a messed up hotel filled with supernatural forces, the infamous mystery of the disappearance of the Roanoke Colony in the 1580s, and a dark cult that terrorizes the hell out of a small town in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election. And even after all of that, they’re far from done. They’re currently in the development stages of the show’s eighth season – and it’s been renewed for a ninth to follow that, too!
4. True Detective
Finally, we’ll be getting a third season of True Detective soon. It’ll star the great Mahershala Ali, who last year became the first ever Muslim to win an Oscar, and it will take place in the Ozarks across three separate time periods. So, it seems like we’re getting True Detective back to its basics. The third season sounds like it’ll have a lot more in common with the first season than the second. The second season gets a bad rap, but it’s not all that bad. Sure, it may have seemed bad in comparison to the first season, which was still fresh in the audience’s memory at the time, but the main problem is that it’s different. Season 2 had a lot to live up to, what with the astounding acclaim that met season 1 just a year earlier. Season 1 is a dark, slick, twisted, Southern Gothic neo noir set in the swamps of Louisiana. Season 2 took a very different approach. It was set in California and had much more of a surreal, David Lynchian vibe about it. By general TV standards, season 2 is pretty good. The show was conceived by novelist Nic Pizzolatto. The first season was initially crafted and outlined as a novel, which is why it’s so brilliantly structured and layered and designed. It’s deep and it gives us a rounded portrait of its central two characters over a long period of their lives. The first season of True Detective will always stand as one of the greatest TV achievements of all time. The second season suffered, because it was rushed. Pizzolatto didn’t have time to consider it as a novel for years, like he had with the first season. But he’s taken his time with the third season, so it should rock!
The Coen brothers’ classic movie Fargo is one of the greatest movies ever made, and it also has a tone and style that is uniquely its own. FX teamed up with the writer Noah Hawley to expand on that tone and style for television. See, the movie is more of a feeling than a narrative. It mixes grisly crimes with dark comedy. It has ordinary people doing horrifically violent things under pressure. It claims to be a true story, even though it’s not. It’s horrifying, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s really weird, but it’s hugely entertaining. That’s Fargo for you, and that’s essentially the essence that they were hoping to capture with the TV show. It could’ve gone horribly wrong and failed, sure, but the key thing is that it didn’t. It turned out to be one of the best shows on television and even after three seasons, it continues to be just that. Fargo has attracted so many fantastic actors over the years: Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Ted Danson, Ewan McGregor, Carrie Coon, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, so many terrific performers. Fargo tells stories that are beautifully complex in a way that is easy to follow. It’s devilishly addictive.
2. American Crime Story
In 2016, everyone was hooked when the first season of American Crime Story, a dramatized retelling of the O.J. Simpson trial entitled The People vs O.J. Simpson, first aired. There were obviously doubts in viewers’ minds that the American Horror Story team had the chops to tackle important true crime stories. But as it turns out, they have those chops and then some. America was hooked by the very same trial that they’d watched play out on TV in real life just twenty years before. Season 2, which is titled The Assassination of Gianni Versace, has been airing over the past couple of months, and that’s just as good. The Versace family that the season is about don’t agree, as they’ve been saying it’s “a work of fiction” based on gossip and rumors, but there is some truth to it, and as a tense and engaging season of television, it’s been highly acclaimed by critics and watched religiously by audiences. A third season about Hurricane Katrina and a fourth season about the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky sex scandal are currently in development. Suffice to say, we’ll be watching this team of writers and directors tell engrossing true crime stories for a long time.
1. Black Mirror
The Twilight Zone is arguably the greatest television series that has ever been made. But it was made like fifty years ago, so the political commentary and social allegories are outdated. Some of them are timeless, but some of them exist solely in the 1960s era they were created in. So, Charlie Brooker in his infinite wisdom has blessed us with a new one, with political commentary and social allegories that suit our current society, specifically our addiction to technology. Each episode gives us a new harrowingly plausible vision of the near future, each with a slightly different angle. One episode is about the dangers of being overprotective as a parent and involving technology in your parenting. One episode is set in a world that has been entirely invaded by sentient robots. One episode is about the immorality of the “an eye for an eye” principle of punishment. If the development of new technologies like virtual reality and artificial intelligence and hell, even dating apps excites you, then give Black Mirror a watch, because it’ll scare you straight. There have been four seasons so far, each more brilliant than the last. Technology is corrupting humanity and becoming smarter and more dangerous than us – Charlie Brooker has opened our eyes to that.