Anthologies are majorly in vogue on television these days: the latest one, “Dispatches from Elsewhere,” is premiering tonight on AMC. And honestly, after years of seeing shows drag on well past their expiration date, just successful enough not to get put out of their misery, it’s refreshing. They have a clear focus, a specific story to tell, and then they’re on to the next thing, with no lollygagging.
But the anthology format is far from a new phenomenon. We’ve seen this style of tightly-scripted television programming with a different story each episode practically since TV was invented. If anything, the more novel element is the anthology show that is comprised of what are essentially several stand-alone limited series held together by a common theme.
Based on a podcast of the same name, “Lore” devotes each episode to exploring different horrifying true stories from history. A combination of documentary footage and dramatic reenactments, “Lore” seeks to entertain as well as inform. While we can argue whether or not the Amazon series improves on the already excellent audio format which won over audiences in the first place, “Lore” nonetheless provides a fascinating glimpse into some truly terrifying historical phenomenon that many viewers will likely be unfamiliar with.
9“Electric Dreams” (2017-2018)
A lot of people would probably describe “Electric Dreams” as Amazon trying to replicate the success of “Black Mirror.” And they do both have a similar near-future, science fiction aesthetic to them. But there’s something about “Electric Dreams” that feels intriguingly mid-twentieth century, obviously a result of each episode being based on various short stories from Philip K. Dick. They have the weight and texture of history, and even when the execution is lacking from time to time, that depth keeps “Electric Dreams” narratively satisfying.
8“Are You Afraid of the Dark?” (1990-1996)
Just as “All That” could be seen as training wheels to get kids into sketch comedy shows, “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” introduced an entire generation to the unsettling horror anthologies that would become popular in their adult lives. The premise was simple: a group of teenagers (dramatically referred to as “the Midnight Society”) meets in the middle of the woods at night to take turns telling scary stories around a campfire. Although the quality of the child actors could be suspect and there are a handful of painfully dated episodes, the majority of the show’s stories are creative, well-crafted, and genuinely spooky.
7“Room 104” (2017-present)
Every other show on this list pretty much stays in its lane. Sure, some bridge a gap between horror and science fiction or fantasy, but for the most part, they keep an internal consistency. That’s what makes “Room 104” so fascinating: its stubborn refusal to define itself. Each episode takes place in the same room at a hotel, but the genre varies dramatically from story to story. This allows the creators to experiment broadly, bringing in elements of comedy, horror, science fiction, and drama, even using different historical eras. The approach of “Room 104” has allowed the series to stay fresh and impossible to pin down.
6“The Outer Limits” (1995-2002)
Although the original “The Outer Limits” aired in the early 1960s as a slightly more sci-fi focused contemporary of “The Twilight Zone,” the revival from the 1990s is arguably the superior series. While it maintained the science-fiction elements that made the original show popular, it made more of a concerted effort to explore the implications of advanced science and technology on humanity.
5“American Horror Story” (2011-present)
There are few shows capable of making audiences more viscerally uncomfortable than “American Horror Story.” Season after season, no matter which demented funhouse landscape it uses as a narrative backdrop, the show has frequently eschewed traditional jump scares in favor of something far more psychologically complex. It digs in under your skin and stays there. “American Horror Story” is a creatively ambitious show, challenging itself to grow and change each season as it continually moves to a new locale and cast of characters.
4“True Detective” (2014-present)
What was originally planned as a limited series quickly evolved into an anthology, capitalizing on the success of the format while still maintaining the appeal of the tightly structured narrative that the first season gave viewers. “True Detective” may have suffered from diminishing returns as the seasons went on, but it’s tough to argue with the incredible quality of the first season’s unbeatable Woody Harrelson–Matthew McConaughey combination. Centered around two policemen tracking down a new lead on a murder case from the 1990s in rural Louisiana, the first season is clever, atmospheric, and addictive.
3“American Crime Story” (2016-present)
While most of the anthologies we’re familiar with tend to be of the horror/sci-fi/fantasy variety, “American Crime Story” goes against the grain. Each season dramatized a different true crime story from twentieth-century American history. Unlike some other anthology shows that switch narratives every episode, this one has the benefit of getting to develop a sustained story arc and explore the intricacies of complicated legal proceedings over the course of one season. And each crime story has featured some truly standout performances, from Cuba Gooding Jr. as OJ Simpson to Darren Criss as Versace murderer Andrew Cunanan.
2“Black Mirror” (2011-present)
Out of the five seasons of “Black Mirror,” there are maybe just a handful of episodes that don’t stand up against the best that twenty-first-century television has to offer. (And that’s saying a lot, since we’re currently living through a veritable golden age of TV.) The show’s quality is incredibly consistent, and its endless ability to surprise audiences is remarkable. But aside from the shocking twists of a dark science fiction show that provides commentary on modern society, “Black Mirror” has produced so many episodes that are legitimately engaging and devastatingly human.
1“The Twilight Zone” (1959-1964)
“The Twilight Zone” is the granddaddy of all anthologies and the influence it has had on the larger cultural zeitgeist is incalculable. Themes and visual motifs of “The Twilight Zone” have touched so many other films and television shows that some knowledge of the program feels almost ubiquitous. Rod Serling masterminded the show as a means of confronting Cold War paranoia and other societal issues that, because they were presented through science fiction and dark fantasy, were somehow less threatening. It stands as a blueprint for not just anthology television but genre storytelling in general.