We take a look at the best anthology programs to grace the medium. Here are some delightful ways to throw away a few hours!
Anthology programs have been a staple of television ever since its inception. It’s a relatively cheap, sustainable method of producing television due to its reliance on a new cast and location each episode. While the popularity of anthology programs has fluctuated through the years, the genre has seen a real resurgence as of late. It’s even gotten to the point where every network has some sort of anthology program filling time on their schedule. Anthology television falling back into the spotlight is certainly a positive thing for both storytelling and television alike, with Hulu most recently jumping into the anthology game with Dimension 404. In lieu of Hulu producing yet another veritable piece of anthology television, we decided to take a look at the best (and the one worst) examples of anthology television that have ever been made. So have no fear, there is nothing wrong with your internet browser. You’re simply in the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition. Where is, unseen by most, an underworld, a place that is just as real, but not as brightly lit… Here are our picks!
15. Nightmares & Dreamscapes
Best Episodes: “Battleground”, “Umney’s Last Case”, “You Know They’ve Got a Hell of a Band”
Stephen King adaptations are always prone to be hit of miss, but the idea of centering an anthology series around the works of King isn’t a bad idea at all. Plus, this ends up having a pretty good batting average at the end of the day. Most of the episodes in the series pull from stories in King’s Nightmares & Dreamscapes (go figure), but there are also stories from Everything’s Eventual, and the pilot is even taken from out of Night Shift. It’s nice to see that the series didn’t feel like it had to limit itself to purely the titular King text. That piot episode, “Battleground” features William Hurt up against some renegade toy soldiers that’s an episode that’s entirely without dialogue and does not disappoint. “Umney’s Last Case” is also wry, hard-boiled detective fiction like only King can deliver where William H. Macy ends up playing three different roles. All of the episodes here—even the weaker ones—tap into why King is such a unique storyteller and find the perfect tales to adapt for a show like this.
Rather than focus specifically on King’s horror oeuvre, Nightmares & Dreamscapes is more interested in highlighting King’s ability as an overall storyteller. Sure, there’s plenty of horror in the series (audiences would kind of riot otherwise), but there’s also sci-fi, action, and heavy dramatic narratives from King’s library. While only a “limited television series event” of eight episodes, Nightmares & Dreamscapes still makes a strong impression and provides some strong King adaptations out there for die-hard fans. Another series (on TNT no less, with a revival being a perfect fit in their new horror block) digging into the library of King’s short stories wouldn’t be in poor form.
14. Are You Afraid of the Dark?
Best Episodes: “The Tale of the Dollmaker”, “The Tale of Laughing in the Dark”, “The Tale of the Super Specs”, “The Tale of the Lonely Ghost”
Are You Afraid of the Dark is about as good as it gets when it comes to spooky anthology programming for kids. The Canadian-based production might have started with humble beginnings, but the series soon grew into a real cultural phenomenon that saw the property extending itself into books and video games. The series, which ran for five seasons beginning in 1990 before seeing a revival by Nickelodeon in 1999 for two additional seasons, depicted the campfire urban legend-style stories of the Midnight Society. The series greatly benefited by framing each episode around this Midnight Society, a cast of characters that audiences could bond with while also experiencing problems that could even inspire the stories that they were telling. Are You Afraid of the Dark? would mostly pull from old urban legends and fairy tales for its story fuel, but there are plenty of modern, original stories being presented, too. The best thing about Are You Afraid of the Dark? is that while most episodes would have a relatively happy ending due to the show’s younger demographic, some entries would still see its protagonist meeting their demise. Nothing is more jarring than thinking that a show has established a certain rhythm and then for it all of a sudden to murder a child. When Are You Afraid of the Dark? wanted to pull off the gloves and get vicious it was definitely able to do so (“The Tale of the Pinball Wizard” and “The Tale of Apartment 214“ are just beyond bleak stories), scarring many impressionable minds in the process.
13. Death Parade
Best Episodes: “Death Counter”, “Cross Heart Attack”, “Rolling Ballade”
Death Parade is such a beautiful show that it’s one of those series that you very easily could binge through in one sitting if you’re not careful (it’s a scant 12 episodes). Death Parade does happen to be an anime, but even if you’re not big on that, the animated series rises so far above the medium that any preconceived hang-ups you have will be forgotten. The series presents the inspired premise that when two people end up dying at the same time, they end up getting sent to a purgatory of sorts where they must compete in some sort of game—billiards, darts, bowling, even twister—against one another. The winner gets to see their soul experience reincarnation, while the loser’s soul goes through erasure. On top of that, the two individuals in competition have no memories of their former life or where they are exactly. The absurd games that are being played only compliment the heavy situation that is at hand. This sort of boiled down storytelling results in some of the sharpest character studies that you’ll come across. Some very touching, extremely surprising narratives are presented here, all of which manage to cut deep and strike a chord with viewers in an unexpected manner.
Death Parade offers up some deeply fun experimentation with anthology storytelling, but it also has a larger story going on with the people that run the bar and act as the “gatekeepers” of this purgatory. Accordingly, while the bulk of the series’ dozen episodes are focused on solitary games played by outsiders, there are some installments that deal purely with the show’s mythos and characters rather than embracing the anthology angle. As a result, Death Parade might be a bit of a cheat as far as anthology series go, but this is such a genuinely unique, different approach to anthology storytelling that it more than warrants a spot here and is worthy of being on people’s radars.
12. Perversions of Science
Best Episodes: “Panic”, “The Exile”, “Dream of Doom”
Perversions of Science is the best anthology show that you’ve never heard of and somehow it’s something that didn’t run for seven seasons. Believe it or not, Perversions of Science is actually a spin-off of Tales from the Crypt (look no further than the nearly identically structured introduction for the show), coming from the Weird Science line of EC, but also stemming from the same impressive creative staff as Tales from the Crypt. HBO was seeing such success with Tales from the Crypt that they decided to double-down on this goodwill and turn out a companion anthology show that would focus on science fiction rather than horror (for what’s it worth, another Tales spin-off was attempted in the form of Two-Fisted Tales, which would have taken more of an action slant, but the series never went forward and the stories were absorbed into Crypt episodes). It’s an idea that should have worked (it even had a sexy robot named Chrome as its host), but even in spite of some of the impressive creative talent on board with the show (Tobe Hooper, Walter Hill, David S. Goyer, Andrew Kevin Walker, Mark Verheiden…), the series failed to perform and only saw one ambitious season.
The series offers up fresh, fun takes on topics like aliens, androids, and terrifying versions of the future. It’s a show that’s very much worth checking out and for Tales from the Crypt fans, it’s almost like a secret extra season of the show. If nothing else, the Hooper/Walker joint “Panic” should be mandatory viewing for any sci-fi fan, with it containing some of the most satisfying twists you’ll come across in a “short story.” The series also sort of did Inception nearly 15 years before Christopher Nolan did with its pilot, “Dream of Doom.” At the very least, we need some sort of new EC Comics combined universe anthology show where the Cryptkeeper and Chrome trade stories and bad puns back and forth with each other. I’ll be the first to contribute to the Sickhearter campaign—aaahahahahaha.
11. Amazing Stories
Best Episodes: “Mirror Mirror”, “Go to the Head of the Class”, “Mummy Daddy”, “The Doll”
Amazing Stories is one of the more expensive anthology series out there, but it’s a show that’s allowed such liberties due to a certain man named Steven Spielberg executive producing the vehicle. Often viewed as softer anthology fare due to it primarily servicing the “fantasy” genre, Amazing Stories is still a great place to see many masters having fun with the form. It’s also one of the best places to come across lighter anthology stories (lest we forget that it doesn’t always have to be doom and gloom).
A lot of the series writing duties come down to Steven Spielberg and Mick Garris, with other heavy hitter directors stepping in like Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Robert Zemeckis, Tobe Hooper, and Brad Bird. There’s just as enviable of a collection of actors present throughout the series, too. Amazing Stories might contain some memorable episodes as well as performances, but the show’s downfall is that its clunkers are really clunkers and pretty embarrassing entries. This is the perfect sort of show to put on during a Saturday afternoon and just have fun with. The versatile, lighter nature of this anthology fare has even led to TV genius Bryan Fuller reviving the series with a murderers’ row of talent in place to help bring it back to life. Here’s hoping that Martin Scoresese’s virtuoso effort, “Mirror Mirror”, sees a modern update.
10. Night Gallery
Best Episodes: “The Big Surprise”, “Pickman’s Model”, “The Caterpillar”,
If having one success of an anthology show in the form of The Twilight Zone wasn’t enough, Rod Serling would also go on to create the underrated Night Gallery series to indulge audience’s anthology bone. Given the fact that Serling had less creative freedom over at NBC with Night Gallery than he experienced at CBS with The Twilight Zone, it ends up feeling that this series just doesn’t have Serling’s heart in it in the same way that his previous show did. That being said, the show still ran for three seasons and managed to turn out a number of impressive Serling-scripted entries that would have fit in just fine at The Twilight Zone. Additionally, Night Gallery is where Serling’s darker ideas were allowed to be played with (and boy does he get dark), with the series skewing much more towards horror and the macabre than The Twilight Zone’s affinity for sci-fi. The shift even feels like the gradual progression of Serling’s sort of storytelling. The two shows also differ in the fact that each episode of Night Gallery is divided up into three stories, which sometimes leads to uneven storytelling, but throws more at the viewers accordingly. Did I mention that this show is scary as hell?
Best Episodes: “The Moving Finger”, “Mannikins of Horror”, “The Match Game”
Very much seen as a spiritual successor to Tales from the Darkside (it even started the year that Darkside ended and featured some of the same crew), Monsters retained many of the same storytelling sensibilities, but having more of a focus on horror now. Tales from the Darkside was certainly a horror-filled show in its own right, but it also had plenty of fun with fantasy and the supernatural, with Monsters focus purely being to frighten its audience (with a few exceptions). It tonally feels like what Night Gallery was to The Twilight Zone. There’s an interesting premise at play in Monsters where each episode focuses on a different sort of monster (a man-eating plant, space aliens, an animatronic kid’s puppet…) that’s causing problems in the given entry. As a result, some truly creative creatures come out of this show and it’s nice to get a sustainable source of varied monster stories. Monsters might not be as popular of a title as some of the other selections here, but that makes it even more of surprising little gem. It boasts big stars pre-fame like Steve Buscemi, Matt LeBlanc, and Tony Shaloub, and even features some impressive Robert Bloch and Stephen King short story adaptations (“The Moving Finger” is a home run all around). Not to mention “Glim-Glim” is one of the most bonkers installments from any show on the list that involves two people trapped in their home with a crazy-looking alien that will end up bringing you to tears by the time the credits roll. No joke.
8. The Outer Limits
Best Episodes: “Demon with a Glass Hand”, “The Architects of Fear”, “The Zanti Misfits”
Even if it might be doomed to forever live in the shadow of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits is still masterful storytelling and a triumph of the genre. The Outer Limits would excel in more sci-fi-centric fare, with the series also having prolific genre writers like Harlan Ellison and Joseph Stefano (who co-created the series) at its disposal. The series might have had a less favorable hit/miss ratio than The Twilight Zone did, but when The Outer Limits worked it was exceptionally well. The series was aided by the fact that many of its stories tried to have some sort of social commentary or relevant projection of the world. This allowed the show to explore some fascinating areas that were just as rich psychologically as some of monsters and threats would be physically. Ellison was even so adamant that James Cameron’s Terminator was ripping off his Outer Limits episode, “Soldier”, that he launched a lawsuit against the director and came out on top. If you can only watch one episode though, Ellison’s “Demon with a Glass Hand” is a thing to behold. It depicts a man stuck in an office building trying to escape from a monster that’s hot on his trail, with his only guidance coming in his glowing glass hand. It’s also got one of the most devastating, gut-punch endings that the show would ever pull off.
People have continued to be so fascinated with The Outer Limits’ unique brand of stories and social justice that the series has seen several revivals through the years, but none with quite the same poignancy as the original.
7. Tales from the Darkside
Best Episodes: “Sorry, Right Number”, “Halloween Candy”, “Case of the Stubborns”
Tales from the Darkside might not be held in the same high regard as The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, but it absolutely should. Coming from George A. Romero and having the back-up support of Tom Savini and Stephen King behind it (and sometimes Clive Barker), Tales from the Darkside is one of the best anthology series out there for scary, twisted short stories. The series proved popular enough to also earn itself a feature film, which happens to actually be one of the slicker, more unique takes on the TV-to-film transition, especially for an anthology show. Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son) also tried to recently revive the series for the CW with unsuccessful results, but he did release his own take on the property in comic form. Not only is The Tales from the Darkside movie even considered to be an unofficial Creepshow 3 in the horror community due to how much crossover exists between the properties, but this series was also originally envisioned as a Creepshow television series meant to bank off of the films’ success. Due to Savini’s presence, the series sports some super impressive monsters and gore throughout its run (episodes like “Halloween Candy” or “Case of the Stubborns” could easily be made into feature films and instantly become creature feature classics). With Stephen King’s involvement, it’s yet another home for a wealth of adaptations of his works, with all of these elements culminating in a series that will really keep you up at night.
6. Alfred Hitchcock Presents
Best Episodes: “Man from the South”, “Revenge”, “The Glass Eye”
On paper, Alfred Hitchcock Presents is technically the most successful anthology TV series. It started in 1955 and ran for seven seasons before then transitioning into an hour-long format from 1962-65 when it was known as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. It seems almost unfathomable that a director as accomplished as Hitchcock would sign off on appearing regularly on a television show, but that’s perhaps a testament to why the material on the show is so strong. Hitchcock himself might not direct all of the episodes (although he does direct 17 out of the lot of 268), but his signature stamp is certainly present (curiously a number of Roald Dahl stories also see adaptation here, with many being some of the show’s sharpest scripts). Like many anthology programs on this list, Alfred Hitchcock Presents would make itself known for featuring shocking and unexpected twists (much like in his films). Furthermore, Hitchcock certainly makes the most of his intro/outro appearances, hamming it up whenever given the opportunity—almost like a proto-Cryptkeeper. There is plenty of crime and murder that occupies this series, but it’s also the sort of show where you can get a touching dramatic character study. There’s a Hitchcock-helmed episode that simply watches a boy all day as he plays with a real gun that he thinks is a toy gun. That sort of game of chicken with suspense isn’t the kind of story you’re going to see in most anthology shows.
5. Masters of Horror/Fear Itself
Best Episodes: “Imprint”, “Homecoming”, “Sounds Like”
Masters of Horror is a project that’s almost too good to be true. Mick Garris masterminded this horror anthology show that features the likes of John Carpenter, John Landis, Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento, Joe Dante, Stuart Gordon, and more. And it was all happening on the cable network, Showtime, meaning they could all basically let loose with their horror urges. In spite of the A++ talent assembled here, it’s a little frustrating that Masters of Horror isn’t a bit more mind-blowing. Make no mistake, this is still top-notch horror content and some of the best to come along since Tales from the Crypt, but there are still duds amongst the line-up. It’s more so just exciting to get so many names of this caliber working under the same umbrella and the sort of potential that lied ahead if the show weren’t cancelled so prematurely. Takashi Miike’s abortion-heavy offering, “Imprint”, was considered so graphic that Showtime wouldn’t even air it in the end, with it instead debuting on the DVD release.
After Showtime unceremoniously canned Masters of Horror after two seasons, Garris was determined to continue keeping his anthology train running. Accordingly, production moved over to NBC under the title of Fear Itself, but this was still largely considered a continuation of Masters of Horror, with the same creative team being in place and many directors returning. Unfortunately, the 2008 Summer Olympics led to Fear Itself leaving the schedule prematurely, but it still acts as a welcome epilogue to Masters of Horror that has some fun, encouraging efforts.
4. Black Mirror
Best Episodes: “Fifteen Million Merits”, “San Junipero”, “White Christmas”
If you’re checking out a feature on anthology shows, then chances are that you’re familiar with Black Mirror. Or it’s familiar with you. That’s the sort of thing that Black Mirror gets off on. Coming from the brilliant British mind of Charlie Brooker (whose body of work you should immerse yourself in immediately), the tech-angled anthology series was originally a cult title before Netflix scooped it up and began producing new episodes. Brooker’s series has the same biting edge as Serling’s Twilight Zone, Black Mirror is much more interested in exploring the disconnect that has grown between man and technology. The bulk of the episodes push some sort of ultra-modern spin on everyday societal concepts, with the results often being enlightening. Black Mirror wants to get in your head and critique the culture that we’re living in and it succeeds. Few shows will open your eyes and shock you as thoroughly as Black Mirror does. It’s a show where you can find a gutting parable about communication and privacy as well as a pitch-black piece of comedy involving a world leader needing to have sex with a pig on camera.
3. Tales from the Crypt
Best Episodes: “The New Arrival”, “People Who Live in Brass Hearses”, “Abra Cadaver”, “Easel Kill Ya”
Tales from the Crypt is a series that is infinitely near and dear to my heart. While it might not have the same social relevance and panache as The Twlight Zone, every episode manages to feature a twist so powerful that it would make Shyamalan do a spit-take. Tales from the Crypt has a strong creative staff in place, featuring visionaries like Robert Zemeckis, Walter Hill, Richard Donner, and Joel Silver. On top of that though, the show was just oozing in the same pulpy style of the EC Comics that its stories were coming from. The advent of the Cryptkeeper himself shows you the sly sort of sense of humor that HBO was letting fly with this show, which happened to run for seven seasons (and spawn two feature films) and help establish HBO in the process. Tales from the Crypt throws a cavalcade of guest stars at you who all appear to be having far too much fun getting murdered by monsters or scheming on former lovers. This series takes what most anthology series are giving off and then gives it a shot of adrenaline. Even the silliest installments from the series will still manage to pull the rug out from under you by the end of things. It’s also a downright disturbing program when it wants to people, with anyone that’s able to watch “The New Arrival” alone with the lights off having a stronger will than most.
M. Night Shyamalan is currently working to reboot the series for TNT, utilizing a fresh approach for the show which might give it a seasonal narrative instead of an episodic approach. A lot of expectations are on the line, but the series will certainly have a rich library to pull from if they happen to adapt any stories from the original series.
2. Inside No. 9
Best Episodes: “A Quiet Night In”, “Cold Comfort”, “The Riddle of the Sphinx”
Inside No. 9 is definitely the little anthology show that could, but it packs such a punch that it should be the series that people are endlessly obsessing about. This should be your new Black Mirror and the show that’s readily available. Inside No. 9 also comes from overseas and from chameleons Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, who not only write every episode, but also play a different role in every offering. The show might act as true showcase of the eclectic work that Shearsmith and Pemberton are capable of, but it’s clear that they have a love for classical storytelling and having fun with their audience. Each episode of the series is set within a different “No. 9”—whether that’s a house number, a karaoke booth, a restaurant—with the story usually taking some wicked turn. Inside No. 9 has gotten especially creative at times too, such as with an episode that’s entirely bereft of dialogue and another that takes place completely within a CCTV system.
Even better is the fact that Inside No. 9’s twists truly knock the rest of these shows’ out of the water. They even give The Twilight Zone’s a run for their money. What’s so incredible here is that Inside No. 9 will manage to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes, while still having many more turns in store for them. The end is never the end with Inside No. 9 and it leads to some deeply unpredictable programming that isn’t afraid to go to some very dark places in order to stir something in its viewers.
1. The Twilight Zone
Best Episodes: “The Invaders”, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”, “Eye of the Beholder”, “The Dummy”
So it might seem a little cliché or overplayed to have The Twilight Zone at the top of this list, but that’s just how damn good this show. The obviousness of this selection is exactly the sort of conclusion that you wouldn’t find on The Twilight Zone, a show that was capable of constantly subverting expectations, re-inventing television, and saying something important at the same time. Rod Serling’s foray into the unexplained and supernatural would become appointment television and often seen as the leading place on cutting edge satire at the time. This show did it all and still rightfully deserves to be viewed as the model to strive for. Serling also somehow wrote an incomprehensible 92 episodes of the show’s run of 156, with his entries often being the strongest. You almost never see such a severe commitment to a series anymore. The Twilight Zone truly was Rod Serling. He was not only an integral part of the series’ voice, but also in shaping the sort of anthology storytelling that is still going on today. Without The Twilight Zone, barely any of these other shows would even exist. So many classic episodes are cultural touchstones that are still being parodied and sent up in pop culture today.
Worst Anthology Show: Easy
Best Episode: “Art and Life”
This is bound to be an unpopular opinion, but Easy is a more helpful answer than throwing something like Tales from the Cryptkeeper or The Twilight Zone from 2002 on here. While arguably Easy might not technically be the worst anthology show out there, it certainly feels like the one with the most wasted potential. Coming from filmmaker Joe Swanberg, Easy takes a refreshingly different approach with the anthology model by being centered on love and the many permutations of relationships that people find themselves in. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this lighter direction for the series, but Swanberg writes and directs every episode of the show, resulting in it having extreme tunnel vision and reflecting the opposite sort of thing that a series like this should be striving for. The series attempts some interesting things towards the end of its run where it begins to combine its many disparate storylines together, but it’s too little too late and feels like most of these episodes are wasted opportunities. Easy is not completely void of value, but it all feels so unessential and close-minded for what could be such a huge area to explore.
Fortunately, the show has been granted a second season which hopefully Swanberg will be able to use to help flesh this series out a little more and present more varied, dimensional storytelling. I’d love nothing more for this show to completely turn itself around for its sophomore season, just like a bad relationship that’s learned from its mistakes.
But what say you, intrepid anthologizers? Are there other programs that are more worthy of a spot? Are you more of a Goosebumps guy than an Are You Afraid of the Dark fan? And while we looked specifically at episodic anthology shows due to their sheer versatility, there are also an abundance of (current) season-length anthology programs such as American Horror Story, Channel 101, FEUD, American Crime Story, and American Crime, all of which are doing exciting things for the genre, too. Let us know what you think in a dimension not unlike your own in the comments below!