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Critics Pick Their Favorite Anthology Series of All Time

From "Twilight Zone" to "The Terror," these series tell fresh stories with similar thematic elements.

"The Twilight Zone"

“The Twilight Zone”

CBS

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: What’s your favorite anthology series of all time? Why?

Marisa Roffman (@marisaroffman), Give Me My Remote

I have to go with the original “Twilight Zone,” because it is astonishing what the show was able to do. One of the beautiful things about television is following characters on an extended journey, but most of the best episodes of “Twilight” were wrapped up in under 30 minutes. That’s a plot/character/world introduction, story, and a twist/resolution in about half the length of a 2019 premium drama episode.

It also remains the only show I’m content to watch out of order (a normal no-no for me), and the only series I try to not seek out via streaming services. I tend to get sucked into the holiday Syfy marathons, and it’s always a delight when a new (to me) episode pops up.

(Also, even if you’ve never seen an episode of any version of “Twilight Zone,” if you consume pop culture, there’s virtually no way you’ve missed something inspired by it.)

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

Currently “The Terror: Infamy” on AMC is living up to the excellence from last summer’s premiere season with Ciaran Hinds and Jared Harris, the captains of two doomed British ships locked in Arctic ice floes. This season’s focus on the Japanese-American internment camps and having George Takei (he walked that fire as a five-year-old) as a consultant and actor portraying an elder with a big fish tale was brilliant and timing spot-on for obvious reasons. Incorporating Japanese horror elements layered onto the real-life crimes against humanity just gives us viewers the massive chills when we need it these relentless dog days of August.

My past pick is purely sentimental, as spending every Friday night with my two sons watching HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” all together is a treasured memory. This anthology series ran from 1989 to 1996 with the cackling Crypt-Keeper (John Kassir voiced him) and from the opening music to the end credits was brilliant, stuffed with a great array of actors and A-lister creatives behind the scenes. Popcorn, blankets to hide under during the scarier bits…I still miss it.

The Terror Infamy The Terror Season 2 AMC Derek Mio

Derek Mio in “The Terror: Infamy”

Ed Araquel/AMC

Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Rolling Stone

How are we defining “anthology,” exactly? A show that tells a new story with new characters each season? In that case, it’s probably “Fargo,” even though I had issues with the third season. A show that tells a new story with new characters every episode? That’s almost certainly the original “Twilight Zone.” I’m going to stretch the definition, though, and go with “Quantum Leap.” Yes, that show had ongoing characters in time traveler Sam and his holographic advisor Al, and an ongoing story arc of sorts in Sam’s desire to return home. Mainly, though, it was a stealth anthology, with a new set of characters each week — one of them just happened to always be played by Scott Bakula as Sam, inhabiting the body of a black chauffeur or a beauty queen or a NASA chimp — and a new genre. It could do hard-boiled detective fiction, domestic comedy, musical theater, and more. And because it always had Bakula and Dean Stockwell there, it got to pull the audience along from week to week, no matter their interest in this particular setting, genre, or group of new people. The best of all possible TV worlds.

Emily VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox

The answer, of course, is “The Twilight Zone,” but that feels too easy, which is why I’m going to talk a little about “Playhouse 90.” It’s a show I haven’t seen that much of — a lot of it has never been commercially available, due to the poor image quality of too much early TV stuff — but the handful of installments I’ve seen from its four seasons (which ran from 1956 to 1960) are wonderfully eclectic, ranging from stories for kids to searing social dramas to gloriously funny comedies. The idea of the show as expressed in its title was that every episode was 90 minutes long, a daunting prospect even in those days of more theatrically inclined TV productions. But boy would I love to see some enterprising broadcast network revive this show, at least in spirit. A new, stage-like story every week, all across 90-minute timeslots? It would be wonderful.

Kirsten Dunst, "Fargo"

Kirsten Dunst, “Fargo”

FX

Alec Bojalad (@alecbojalad, Den of Geek

I’m tempted to go with Netflix’s dubiously named “The Haunting of…” series even though it sits at only one installment so far. But for as much as I loved “Hill House,” I still need to see how “Bly Manor” and other future installments pan out. “Black Mirror” seems like a good candidate as well though I don’t know how I feel about its “anthology” status – it’s more of a series of sci-fi films if anything.

That leaves Noah Hawley’s “Fargo” as my ultimate answer. “Fargo’s” three seasons have varied a bit in quality but in some sense that just makes an even better example of an anthology done right. Within the anthology format, some seasons will be better (like Season 2) and some will be worse (Season 3). What’s important, however, is that each installment be united both narratively and thematically. Though the time periods and criminal schemes in every season of “Fargo” may change, each installment exists within a consistent world and is ultimately about how “normal people” deal with forces beyond their control and understanding. Those forces might come in the form of a seemingly unstoppable hitman, a UFO, or even just humanity’s maddening inability to communicate.

Hawley’s ability to take the Coen Brothers’ original format, find the soul of what made it unique, and adapt it to television has helped make the medium a more anthology-friendly place.

Clint Worthington (@clintworthing), Consequence of Sound, The Spool

Call me basic, but I just don’t think anything will ever live up to the dynamism, craft, and social bite of Rod Serling’s original “Twilight Zone.” Independent of their objective quality (which I’ll get to in a minute), they’re one of the shows that shaped not just my childhood, but my lifelong love of speculative fiction. Plus, the intermittent New Year’s marathons of old “Twilight Zone” episodes give me ample opportunity to tap back into that sense of childhood wonder.

There’s something intangible about their budget-friendly nature as modest teleplays, their ideas explored not by state-of-the-art visual effects but the power of scriptwriting and suggestion. It hearkens back to the imagination-heavy Golden Age of science fiction, a time when we finally understood the power of science but still needed to explore its implications. Serling’s stories were didactic in the best way, modern fables told through the language of the atomic era, and notably progressive for their time. Imitators like “Black Mirror” and (I’ll say it) Peele’s CBS reboot of “Twilight Zone” itself will never be able to match the timeless potency of images like Burgess Meredith breaking his glasses, or the pig-faces from “Eye of the Beholder.”

"Quantum Leap"

“Quantum Leap”

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine

OK, I had to look this one up to make sure my pre-teen mind wasn’t messing with me, and it turns out that it wasn’t! In 1979, there was a show called “Cliffhangers!” that was anthology-ish, except it wasn’t a different story every season, it was three different serials and every episode featured 20-minute installments of each storyline that ended with, yes a cliffhanger, before a commercial break. When the show came back from commercials, the next serial’s chapter would air and you’d have to wait until the next week to see how each one resumed.

I remember being fascinated by a show that was three distinctly different shows (instead of currently being annoyed by one particular series that becomes like four different shows over eight episodes) and also being confused. The stories were such opposites! “Stop Susan Williams” starred Susan Anton as a female Indiana Jones, “The Secret Empire” was a Western with aliens and “The Curse of Dracula” was more of a romance than horror. Still, it was so different from anything I had seen in my 10 years of life at that point and a young Michael Nouri as a San Francisco vampire was all that little gay kid needed to be hooked. I don’t remember how it all tied up and according to Wikipedia, it never actually finished airing all of the parts. But it left its mark and is probably why I keep giving “American Horror Story” another chance. Even after that garbage “Hotel” season.

Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), GoldDerby

Can I say Harper’s Island even though it was, cruelly, unjustly canceled after one season? I know I kinda, sorta just name-checked in an answer last month, but it deserved better, OK? But I’ll go to my first true anthology love that lasted more than one season and is also in the horror/mystery vein: “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” That scared me sh–less when I was a kid, and I absolutely loved it. It went there with some truly disturbing stuff that you hardly ever see in children’s shows then or now. Hell, I still think about “The Tale of the Dollmaker” or “The Tale of the Shiny Red Bicycle” and shudder.

"Are You Afraid of the Dark?"

“Are You Afraid of the Dark?”

Nickelodeon

Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR

I feel this answer has to be divvied up into two eras, because the anthology series of yesteryear are a lot different than the anthologies today’s TV talents are rolling out. So, in the category of historic anthology series, I’d have to go with Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone.” Created by Serling, a radio and TV writer eager to develop programs addressing deeper social issues, “The Twilight Zone” aired for five seasons starting in 1959, featuring stand-alone stories every episode, often with a science fiction or fantastical theme and often with a telling twist at the end. Some classic “Twilight Zone” episodes included Billy Mumy (“Lost in Space”) as a super powered six year old who isolated a small town and ruled it with an iron fist (Cloris Leachman played his mother); William Shatner as a man recovering from a nervous breakdown who sees a gremlin on the wing of a passenger plane and Burgess Meredith as a henpecked, bookish bank teller who thinks he’s in paradise when a nuclear war kills everyone but him, leaving him free to read all the books he wants (the twist ending: his glasses fall off his face and shatter, leaving him unable to read). The series was so groundbreaking, it inspired three revival series, a movie, a radio series and even the Tower of Terror ride at Walt Disney theme parks. Most importantly, “Twilight Zone” aired at a time when network TV was still largely escapist, avoiding direct mention of controversial events in the real world. Serling used the science fiction and fantastical settings of his episodes to talk about social issues like racism, war and poverty in ways the network executives and sponsors could accept.

Modern-day anthology series often avoid the heavy lifting of creating a new story every episode. Instead, they craft a new story every season, stretching the narrative over eight, ten or thirteen episodes. In this class, I’d name FX’s “American Crime Story,” mostly for the power of its first entry, “People v. O.J. Simpson.” It was the first of two Simpson-oriented TV projects that year – including ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America” – and the only scripted recreation of the murder trial which managed to tell viewers loads of new things about the most media-drenched prosecution in history, while also speaking to our current concerns about criminal justice, race and policing.

The People v. O.J. Simpson

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

Is there some trick answer that I’m missing here? Otherwise, it’s going to be an entire poll of people saying “The Twilight Zone,” plus Ben saying, “I’ve cheated and looked at everybody’s answers, so let me do something else. Is ‘Leftovers’ an anthology series?” I mean, I love “Fargo,” all three seasons. Yes. Even the third. But it’s only worthy of being a bonus answer here, because the real answer HAS to be “The Twilight Zone.” Classic flavor. Rod Serling. You know the one.

Diane Gordon (@thesurfreport), Freelance

I know I’m cheating a bit but I’m going with “The Wire” for my favorite anthology series. Yes, I know it has characters that carry over from season to season (thanks to Hanh for the reminder that both current series “AHS” and “Fargo” do this too) but I’m choosing it anyway because when you look at the totality of the five seasons, it’s an anthology about the past and present of Baltimore.

“The Wire” had a major impact on my storytelling brain as it incorporated Baltimore civic history with larger themes about the problems American institutions cause and attempt to alleviate. Whether it was illegal drug trade, the seaport system, the city government and bureaucracy, the school system, or the print news media, David Simon and the series writers told stories on a granular level and the detail added to the charged emotional impact of each season. Because the same unit of officers and politicians recurred over the show’s five seasons, there was a sense of the need for change while also showing that progress is slow and often seems impossible.

Even though season four aired in 2006, I still haven’t forgotten how emotional the season about the Baltimore school system made me feel. The outlook for some of the children was so bleak, and even when the writers offered a glimmer of hope, it was usually dashed by a part of the city bureaucracy.

It was often hard to reconcile my feelings about the show as it was such extraordinary, expansive storytelling and it was done so well, but watching it usually left me sad and wondering if any solutions were even possible. To this day, I marvel at “The Wire” for its outstanding casting, writing, vision and civic-minded soul.

"The Wire"

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

All right, I really think “The Leftovers” could qualify as an anthology event of some kind, given the dramatic scenery and tonal shift seen between Seasons 1 and 2, as well as a series finale that functions beautifully as a standalone feature film, but I’ll relent to traditional thinking and choose something else. Inspired by my ever-inclusive colleague Dan “Mr. President” Fienberg, let me shout-out “Room 104,” “The Missing,” “Fargo,” and “The Twilight Zone,” before ultimately going with “True Detective” — that all right with everyone? No? Well, even with the disastrous second season’s overreaching machoism, Nic Pizzolatto is two-for-three with his star-studded HBO anthology. My love for Season 1 is as endless as a flat circle, and Season 3’s ambitious structure and return to character-centric storytelling made for excellent TV. Plus, there’s Matt and Mahershala. Always Matt and Mahershala. All right, all right, all right.

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “Succession” (four votes)

Other contenders: “Lodge 49” (two votes), “The Boys,” “David Makes Man,” “GLOW,” “Hypnotize Me,” “Pose,” “The Terror: Infamy” (one vote each)

*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.

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