One of my favorite storytelling formats is the anthology. I’m not sure why this format speaks to me so much — perhaps I just have a short attention span — but I love it and have noticed an influx in great anthology series lately, which is why I have decided to create this list of what I believe to be the top 5 best anthology TV series from recent history.
Just like the short story collection before it, the anthology allows the viewer to consume several bite-sized narratives connected by a common writer, director, or theme. So, what exactly is the definition of an anthology TV series? A television anthology (what I’m going to focus on in this article) is a series that presents a different story with a different set of characters in each episode. In some cases, especially now as it seems to be the current trend, anthology series have season-long arcs where the episodes follow one long narrative that then changes at the start of a new season. Another aspect of the anthology is that it often features the same actors playing multiple roles. The Ryan Murphy projects (American Horror and Crime Story) seem to have popularized this method as great actors such as Sarah Paulson can be seen playing a heroin-addicted ghost one season then a distraught housewife in the next. This seems to offer up incredible performances and an ability to truly see a performer’s range, especially if you have great actors signed to the call sheet.
The format started with short story and poetry collections then evolved as new mediums were created. We can trace genre anthology series back to the 1940’s with radio plays like The Whistler and Dark Fantasy then on to the 70’s where we got projects like The Zero Hour hosted by Rod Sterling. Sterling then went on to create the most famous and memorable TV anthology series of all-time, The Twilight Zone. Now we have everything from a modern meditation on The Twilight Zone in Black Mirror to Easy, a beautifully subtle and so intimately human series about sex and love. And the format seems to be gaining traction as even more shows have been announced for 2017 such as the Aubrey Plaza produced Nightmare Time and a Tales From the Crypt reboot.
So without further adieu, I present my list of the Top 5 Modern Anthology Series. Please note that I tried to vary the genres as much as possible and only included shows I can speak to from experience. There are some shows that I’ve heard are great, but I’d rather stick to what I have seen with my own two eyes. Lastly, these are all “modern” shows meaning they are currently airing or in-between seasons.
1. Black Mirror
Where to Watch: BBC & Netflix
Who it’s for: Everyone, really. It’s that good. But people who are interested in sci-if and/or technology will especially enjoy this series.
Where to start: I mentioned that every episode is fantastic, but that doesn’t mean some aren’t better than others. “White Christmas” is probably the best Black Mirror has to offer, but I would recommend starting with “The Entire a history of You” because if you like that, you’ll love the rest.
Black Mirror is not only my favorite anthology series of all time, but, in my opinion, one of the best TV series out there. This is a series that’s all about quality over quantity. There are only six hour-long episodes and a feature-length Christmas special, but each and every one is fantastic. You can think of Black Mirror as Twilight Zone for the new millennium. Every episode has to do with some aspect of technology and, though it takes place in the near future, the most compelling aspect of the show is how terrifyingly close we are to the futures that the show posits. This is not hard sci-if in the vein of both Stars War and Trek, but softer sci-si like the works of Kurt Vonnegut. There’s plenty of relationship drama and absolutely no phasers or lasers.
2. American Horror Story
Where to Watch: FX, Netflix
Who it’s for: People who like horror (especially gore) but don’t want to be too scared. Also, there’s a nice variation so you may not like the carnival-themed Freakshow but could enjoy the haunted Murder House of season one.
Where to start: Seeing as they don’t really stand alone, I don’t have a specific episode to recommend. If you’ve never seen the show, though, I would say Hotel (season 5) is the best place to start.
Unlike Black Mirror, most people have probably heard of FX’s American Horror Story. It has been a consistently popular show for the last five years. American Horror Story is a different type of anthology series in that each season has a different setting/plot, but each episode within those seasons follow one arc. A lot of the same actors and actresses appear throughout the series, which is great when you have talent like Kathy Bates, Jessica Lane, and Evan Peters. Just like it sounds, this is a horror series, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it scary. American Horror Story is gory, disturbing, tense, and occasionally sexy. American Horror Story is fun and entertaining, but it’s closer to a campy B-movie than something tense and serious like The Shining. The main draws of the show, in my opinion, are the acting and the visuals. The costumes and set design are especially great.
American Horror Story: Roanoke currently airs on Wednesdays on FX. Hotel and the other seasons are available to stream on most streaming platforms.
Where to Watch: Netflix
Who it’s for: Oddly enough, I would say this show would appeal more to people who have no interest in the other two aforementioned shows. This is a very grounded, relatable comedy about love — and it’s really great.
Where to start: The episodes in this series do stand on their own, but because of the character crossovers I would recommend starting at the very beginning.
One of the newest series on this list, Easy is also one of the most impressive. I feel that there is a strong chance this show will be nominated for a few awards over the coming year. Easy is romantic comedy series focusing on the love lives of several people living in present-day Chicago. The main focuses here — and it’s something creator Joe Swanberg does very well — are love and sex. Each episode follows a different couple, with some characters coming back later as their stories and sex lives intersect with others. What makes Easy (and most other mumblecore projects) so great is how real everything feels. Sometimes Easy feels like a really well-shot documentary. That is thanks to two things: 1) the top-notch acting, and 2) the fact that the dialogue is improvised. You see, when you don’t give an actor a script and instead ask them to react how they feel that character really would, then you get very real moments. The fact there is a star-studded cast including Orlando Bloom, Malin Ackerman, Dave Franco, Jake Johnson, Aya Cash, Marc Marin, and more certainly doesn’t hurt. All episodes of Easy are streaming on Netflix now.
4. American Crime
Where to Watch: ABC
Who it’s for: Unlike most of the other shows on this list, American Crime is not genre fare and I think it would be enjoyed by nearly anyone. As long as you’re okay with some heavy stuff, you can’t go wrong with this one.
Where to start: Again, you have to watch the seasons in order so they make sense, but I would recommend starting with season 2 because it’s slightly better.
American Crime is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated dramas on TV. Perhaps being in the age of fantastic premium, cable, and streaming shows such as Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and Orange is the New Black has gotten people used to ignoring network programming. I for one had not seen a network show that I actually enjoyed for a long time… until my fiancée recommended American Crime. Each season features a different crime, but rather than focus on the investigation and prosecution like Law and Order, American Crime shows how everyone, from the perpetrator and victim’s families to peripheral characters who attend the same school, is affected by said crime. The show really digs deep into issues related to sexuality, prejudice, drug abuse, etc. and it is made all the more compelling by the fantastic acting. Like American Horror Story (the name is a coincidence by the way; American Crime Story is the Ryan Murphy project), the same actors are used repeatedly and the episodes within each season follow one arc. The show features powerhouse performances by Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, and Regina King.
American Crime season 1 is on Netflix and 2 can be watched via ABC On Demand.
5. Doctor Who
Where to Watch: BBC
Who it’s for: Nerds, children, and nerdy children. Really, though, anybody interested in sci-fi will find something to like.
Where to start: This is a tough one because there are so many great episodes (and what doctor you prefer certainly plays a role). The best “gateway episode” is also one of the best ever produced and it’s called “Don’t Blink.” I would start there if you’ve never seen a single episode. If you’ve seen a few and are just looking for a good one you may have missed: watch “The Waters of Mars.” Also, most of the Christmas specials are really great.
This is a bit of an unusual one for this list, but I think it works. Doctor Who isn’t what most people would call an anthology series, but it absolutely is in my mind. There are many, many stand-alone episodes that don’t need to be watched in any certain order and even the main protagonist changes quite a bit and actors sometimes play different roles. For example, both current doctor, Peter Capaldi, and former companion Karen Gillan played minor characters in one-off episodes before landing bigger parts. Doctor Who certainly isn’t for everyone seeing as it is essentially a children’s show with heavy sci-fi elements, but the people who like it — myself included — really, really like it. I don’t claim to be the biggest Whovian because there are many episodes that just aren’t for me, yet some of the more mature, “scary” episodes have some of my favorite sci-fi stories ever. The nice thing about Doctor Who is that there have been 13 different doctors and over 750 episodes, so there’s likely something in there for everybody. The true brilliance of the show lies in its ability to tell an infinite number of stories; when your characters can both travel into the past to meet Van Gogh and the future to witness the end of the universe, you can do anything narratively. Trust me, they’ve explored a lot of storytelling territory already, but there’s so Manucho more to do — especially with a new doctor coming up.
Doctor Who airs on BBC and most of the modern era can be found on Netflix
Bonus: Notable Upcoming Anthology Series
Black Mirror: the Netflix exclusive, U.S. produced third season premieres October 21, 2016.
Welcome to Hitchcock: season-long suspenseful stories inspired by Alfred Hitchchock. Announced, no premiere date.
Twilight Zone (reboot): a video game/TV series hybrid written & directed by BioShock‘s Kevin Levine. Planned for 2017.
Nightmare Time: a horror-comedy anthology series from the mind of Parks and Rec‘s Aubrey Plaza. Pilot ordered by TBS.
Tales from the Crypt (reboot): the horror anthology is set to be rebooted by M. Night Shyamalan for TNT. No premiere date.
Let me know in the comments if I missed your favorite series and which of the upcoming shows you’re most excited about!