'Black Mirror' And 'Electric Dreams' Prove It: The Anthology Show Is Back

Jan 17, 2018
Originally published on January 19, 2018 10:25 am

Some TV genres are perennials. They've been around since the early days of television, and probably are never going away — weekly drama series featuring doctors or cops, for example.

Other TV genres are like locusts. They get buried, lying dormant, until they suddenly resurface. On prime time TV, the game show was dead for decades until Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? brought it back. And quite recently, Netflix's Godless, like HBO's Deadwood years before it, did its best to try and revive the TV Western.

But no genre on television, in this century, has had a bigger and better resurgence than the anthology series. In the early golden age of TV, these shows were performed live, with programs like Kraft Television Theatre and Goodyear Television Playhouse presenting great dramas like Rod Serling's Requiem for a Heavyweight and Paddy Chayefsky's Marty.

Then came filmed anthology shows, often hosted by the program's creators: writer Serling, again, with The Twilight Zone, and director Alfred Hitchcock with Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Eventually, this genre lost out to the weekly dramatic series, where the same protagonist returned every week in a format that was easier to promote and prolong. But TV lost something in the process — the thrill of uncertainty, where anything can happen, and any character can be in real danger and even die, and stories can actually wrap up in relatively quick fashion.

Now, almost out of nowhere, the anthology series is back — and in some cases, literally is bigger than ever.

The modern standard-issue anthology shows are actually post-modern, and basically deal with themes of technology versus humanity. The best of them is Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror, which began in England and now is co-produced by Netflix.

Last year, an expanded Black Mirror episode won a pair of Emmys. This year, with an expanded episode called "USS Callister," I expect it may do the same. It's a wonderful story about a character trapped against her will in an alternate computerized reality — the same idea also explored, right now on TV, in a stand-alone episode of Fox's The X-Files, and in an episode of yet another anthology series, Amazon's Electric Dreams, based on the stories of Philip K. Dick.

Dick is the science-fiction writer who, some 50 years ago, wrote the stories that later inspired the movies Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report. For this new series, which includes Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad as one of its executive producers and stars, the old stories are adapted very freely — sometimes almost unrecognizably, but usually with impressive results.

One of the best adaptations, called "Safe and Sound," is based on a 1955 Dick story called "Foster, You're Dead." The original story was about a high-school boy whose family buys the newest model of bomb shelter, only to have it prove instantly obsolete.

In this new TV version, Foster is a girl, and the new technology isn't a bomb shelter. It's a Siri-type artificial intelligence that is implanted into her head when she sticks some high-tech gel in her ear. That's the latest gotta-have consumer item in this version — or is she just imagining it? Because, in this story about paranoia, the voice in Foster's head may just be ... a voice in Foster's head. Especially when it instructs her to do some crazy-sounding things, like searching for anthills or planning an act of terrorism on her own high school.

The beauty of the anthology series is that anything could happen — even to a character like Foster. In the past few years, TV has taken this idea and expanded it, coming up with extended narratives, lasting 10 episodes or so, that end, then return with all-new casts and stories.

The FX network is the pioneer here. Ryan Murphy has presented seven very different seasons so far of American Horror Story, and has just followed his superb American Crime Story entry, The People v. O.J. Simpson, with a new drama about the murder of Gianni Versace.

And Noah Hawley, with three dizzyingly different seasons of FX's Fargo, has perfected this new form. It's part series, part miniseries, part anthology show — and it's thrilling.

And the best development of all may be that CBS, for its streaming CBS All Access site, has announced plans to present a new version of The Twilight Zone — a version produced by Jordan Peele, who just wowed everyone with the very Zone-ish movie thriller Get Out.

With news like that — and with the creative success of shows like Black Mirror and Electric Dreams, and extended dramas like Fargo -- there's no question whatsoever: The anthology show is back.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Two TV shows have surfaced recently that explore futuristic themes in an anthology series format. Netflix launched a new season of its "Black Mirror" series, while another streaming service, Amazon, just premiered a new series based on the works of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick called "Electric Dreams." Our TV critic David Bianculli says both shows are part of a television revival.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Some TV genres are perennials and have been around since the early days of television and probably are never going away - weekly drama series featuring doctors, for example, and cops. But other TV genres are like locusts and are buried lying dormant until they suddenly resurface. On primetime TV, the game show was dead for decades until "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" brought it back. And quite recently, Netflix's "Godless", like HBO's "Deadwood" years before it, did its best to try and revive the TV western.

But no genre on television in this century has had a bigger and better resurgence than the anthology series. In the early golden age of TV, these shows were performed live with programs like "Kraft Television Theatre" and "Goodyear TV Playhouse" presenting great dramas like Rod Serling's "Requiem For A Heavyweight" and Paddy Chayefsky's "Marty." Then came filmed anthology shows often hosted by the program's creators - writer Serling, again, with "The Twilight Zone" and director Alfred Hitchcock with "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."

Eventually, this genre lost out to the weekly dramatic series where the same protagonist returned every week in a format that was easier to promote and prolong. But TV lost something in the process - the thrill of uncertainty, where anything can happen and any character can be in real danger and even die and stories can actually wrap up in relatively quick fashion. But almost out of nowhere, the anthology series is back and in some cases, literally, bigger than ever.

The modern standard issue anthology shows are actually postmodern and basically deal with themes of technology versus humanity. The best of them is Charlie Brooker's "Black Mirror," which began in England and now is co-produced by Netflix. Last year, an expanded "Black Mirror" episode won a pair of Emmys in the TV-movie category. This year, with an expanded episode called "USS Callister," I expect it may do the same. It's a wonderful story about a character trapped against her will in an alternate computerized reality - the same idea also explored right now on TV in a standalone episode of Fox's "The X Files" and in an episode of yet another anthology series, Amazon's "Electric Dreams" based on the stories of Philip K. Dick.

Dick is the science fiction writer who, some 50 years ago, wrote the stories that later inspired the movies - "Blade Runner," "Total Recall" and "Minority Report." For this new series, which includes Bryan Cranston of "Breaking Bad" as one of its executive producers and stars, the old stories are adapted very freely - sometimes almost unrecognizably but usually with impressive results. One of the best adaptations called "Safe And Sound" is based on a 1955 Dick story called "Foster, You're Dead." The original story was about a high school boy whose family buys the newest model of a bomb shelter only to have it prove instantly obsolete.

In this new TV version, Foster is a girl. And the new technology isn't a bomb shelter; it's a Siri-type artificial intelligence that is implanted into her head when she sticks some high-tech gel in her ear. That's the latest got-to-have consumer item in this version. Or is she just imagining it? Because in this story about paranoia, the voice in Foster's head may just be a voice in Foster's head, especially when it instructs her to do some crazy sounding things like searching for anthills or planning an act of terrorism on her own high school.

Annalise Basso plays Foster. Connor Paolo is the voice she hears in her head. And after a while, that voice gets mean.

ANNALISE BASSO: (As Foster Lee) I need a doctor.

CONNOR PAOLO: (As Ethan) You're not sick.

BASSO: (As Foster Lee) I'm talking to ants.

PAOLO: (As Ethan) No, I told you, their antenna can bounce our - you have taken two psych profiles in your life. Do you remember?

BASSO: (As Foster Lee) One after my dad died and the other just two weeks ago for immigration.

PAOLO: (As Ethan) Yes. And just like Justin's, your childhood profile bears no similarity to the new one. That little girl was strong, and she was confident and social. Is that really the way you describe yourself now? They changed you.

BASSO: (As Foster Lee) I need to talk to someone. I need to see a face so I know this isn't all happening inside my head.

PAOLO: (As Ethan) Grow the [expletive] up, Foster. I know your dad heard voices. I know he lost his mind and killed himself. But that is not you. This is happening. This is how the world really works. And people are going to die unless you [expletive] listen. So are you listening?

BASSO: (As Foster Lee) Yeah.

BIANCULLI: At this point in the story, anything could happen, even to her. And that's the beauty of the anthology series. In the past few years, TV has taken this idea and expanded it, coming up with extended narratives lasting 10 episodes or so that end, then return with all new casts and stories.

The FX network is the pioneer here. Ryan Murphy has presented seven very different seasons so far of "American Horror Story" and has just followed his superb "American Crime Story" entry, "The People V. O.J. Simpson" with a new drama about the murder of Gianni Versace. And Noah Hawley, with three dizzyingly different seasons of FX's "Fargo," has perfected this new form. It's part series, part miniseries, part anthology show. And it's thrilling.

And the best development of all may be that CBS, for its streaming CBS All Access site, has announced plans to present a new version of "The Twilight Zone," a version produced by Jordan Peele who just wowed everyone with the very zone-ish (ph) movie thriller "Get Out." With news like that and with the creative success of shows like "Black Mirror" and "Electric Dreams" and the extended dramas like "Fargo," there's no question whatsoever - the anthology show is back.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is editor of the website, TV Worth Watching. His latest book is "The Platinum Age of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific."

On tomorrow's show, Christian Picciolini was a teenager looking for identity and purpose when he joined a violent white supremacist group, believing he was protecting the white race from extinction. He eventually got out and now works to combat hate and racism. We'll hear about his transformation and his new memoir "White American Youth." Hope you can join us.

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DAVIES: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

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