“The Golden Age of Television” is a phrase that has been thrown around with almost reckless abandon since the dark ages before streaming. I’d argue that every decade has had examples of phenomenal programming, as well as some that has been . . . not so great. The ’80s mastered the art of the Saturday-morning cartoon. The ’90s gave us dozens of fantastic and truly groundbreaking sitcoms. The early aughts saw the cable networks prove that the small screen isn’t a limitation for big, cinematic storytelling.
And now? This era’s golden age belongs to the anthologies.
Ever since Rod Serling first stepped onscreen to guide us into a dimension not only of sight and sound but of the mind, welcoming viewers to the Twilight Zone, anthology programming has been a staple of television over the past six decades. While the format has covered many genres—from the compelling concepts of The Outer Limits and the erotic thrills of Zalman King’s Red Shoe Diaries to the middle-school scares of Are You Afraid of the Dark? and more adult terrors of Tales From the Crypt—nonserialized stories have captivated a wide variety of audiences.
With the rise of streaming services in recent years, the distribution model may have changed, but our love of anthologies remains as strong as ever. By nature, these shows contain numerous stories, and some are better than others, so to help you wade through, here are a few of my favorite anthology stories from a handful of different series to kick off your summer viewing.
1. Black Mirror (Netflix)
Noteworthy Episodes: “Shut Up and Dance” and “Fifteen Million Merits”
I’m going to start with Black Mirror because it’s likely the series you’ve already heard about, if not streamed repeatedly already. The heir apparent to The Twilight Zone, Charlie Brooker’s unrelenting anthology series—the stories of which are all based in technological terrors—have been receiving accolades since its debut on American television via Netflix. (It originally aired on the UK’s Channel 4 beginning in 2011.) Millions of words have been typed about every episode, and full disclosure, it is my favorite non–Star Trek show on air today. So rather than go on and on about all 19 episodes and how they’re all so good, I’ll keep it short and sweet, with a brief overview limited to my two favorites.
Of all the episodes I’ll be covering here, season 3’s “Shut Up and Dance” is the most unnerving. Not because of the content per se, though it’s undoubtedly unpleasant, but rather because the events of the episode could actually happen in real life. (Even more horrifying, it could’ve happened as much as 10 years ago.) Quite possibly the darkest 52 minutes of television ever aired—rivaled only by another Black Mirror episode, “Crocodile”—”Shut Up and Dance” tells the story of a teenage boy blackmailed by a mysterious hacker who’s taken control of his laptop webcam while the young man was indulging in a bit of self-love. Using the threat of releasing the footage, the hacker coerces the boy into blindly following a series of increasingly strange and illegal activities. During the execution of these activities, the teen encounters others who are also being coerced by the hacker, and as each scene progresses, the story gets darker and more horrific, with an ending that not only chills you to the core but also stays with you when you realize how it taints previous moments in the story. It is a visual nightmare made all the more terrifying by its unyielding plausibility.
Another episode of note, season 1’s “Fifteen Million Merits,” is set in a distant yet still oddly relatable future in which the populace earns digital currency called “merits” by riding exercise bikes all day and watching an endless barrage of reality TV–type junk-food programming. The story centers on Bing (Daniel Kaluuya of Get Out and Black Panther), who has inherited the episode title’s 15 million merits and is generally apathetic about his station in life. One day, he meets Abi, and an instant attraction ignites. After hearing her singing, he convinces her to participate in a talent game show to escape the slave-like world around them, using nearly all of his inherited merits to pay her entrance fee. Just when it seems that true talent and love will win the day, a massive obstacle in the form of Internet-style mob mentality and groupthink rears its ugly head. Determined to save Abi, Bing embarks on a personal mission to raise enough money to enter so he can face the obstacles himself. The climax is tense, and the culmination of the episode is as authentically surprising as it is troubling.
2. Tales from the Darkside (Shudder)
Noteworthy Episode: “I Can’t Help Saying Goodbye”
Tales from the Darkside is a bit older and a lot more grim than it oft-compared counterpart, Tales from the Crypt. The Cryptkeeper offered cheesy puns and a bit of levity between stories, and the revolving door of (familiar to me at the time) celebs helped belay the suspension of disbelief. But Tales from the Darkside—created by the late, great godfather of the contemporary zombie flick, George A. Romero, in partnership with phenomenally prolific modern horror master Stephen King—didn’t try to entertain so much as it tried to irrevocably scar young viewers watching secretly, well after bedtime. (Uh . . . not me, Mom! I always went straight to bed when you told me.) The best episode, in this case meaning the most disturbingly frightening one, was “I Can’t Help Saying Goodbye” from season 3.
The episode is a masterclass in minimalism. The premise is fairly straightforward: the youngest sister in a single-parent suburban family has the power to kill people simply by saying “goodbye.” The simple setting and the eerie performance by the young actress combine perfectly with the underlying metaphor of grief stemming from familial loss. The uncharacteristic weight of the material elevates the low production values, and kids are near unparalleled when it comes to lending creepiness to the common.
3. Electric Dreams (Amazon Prime)
Noteworthy Episodes: “Autofac,” “The Commuter”
Electric Dreams is somewhat of a sleeper series based on the works of Philip K. Dick. Though it hasn’t received the same level of attention and acclaim, the high production values, brilliant performances, and sharp storytelling are on par with Black Mirror. Like Tales from the Darkside, the cast episodes are anchored by strong A-list talent, but the direction and execution of the stories keep you thoroughly engaged as the stars slip entirely into their roles, blending seamlessly with the fantastical worlds presented.
The episode “Autofac” focuses on a group of survivors in a postapocalyptic world in the aftermath of a devastating war, where nearly everything we know has been destroyed save for a massive factory, called Autofac, run by a seemingly insidious artificial intelligence. Even with no active customers, the factory continues to run, polluting the environment and delivering items that nobody wants or needs. The survivors’ goal is to shut down Autofac so it can stop killing nature. In order to go about this, their plan involves tricking it into thinking that there’s an issue with a delivery, prompting the AI to send Alice, a customer-service android played to eerie perfection by Janelle Monae, to investigate. While the survivors hope to use Alice find out more about Autofac, it turns out that Alice knows a chilling secret about them. The climax and ending border on sci-fi cliché, but the story plays out so perfectly that you’re glued to the screen to the very last minute.
“The Commuter” asks a heartbreakingly complex question: if you knew the future contained nothing but tragedy, what would you be willing to sacrifice to change it? Philip K. Dick was the undisputed king of blending hard science fiction and philosophy, and this episode captures the melodramatic, emotional balance between the two firmly. This is the episode I’d recommend for someone who is only able or willing to watch one episode. Timothy Spall gives perhaps the greatest performance of his long and luminous career as a train employee stumbling across a mysterious woman who leads him to an equally mysterious town called Macon Heights that shouldn’t be there. Although it seems like the perfect place, he discovers that Macon Heights isn’t a complete nirvana but rather an escape from personal hardships. Is his personal happiness worth abandoning reality, no matter how challenging and unpleasant? The episode could’ve easily veered into sanctimony or cheesiness, but instead it simply presents the question and gives possible answers like your favorite undergrad professor, leaving the viewer to ultimately decide.
4. Dimension 404 (Hulu)
Noteworthy Episode: “Cinethrax”
Dimension 404 is like that kid in high school who claimed to be really into punk but never got deeper into the scene than watching videos on BuzzBin. But while you might think they would have been laughed out of the punk circles, their parents were always out of town and they threw awesome parties, so everyone just kind of put up with their casual posing. The budgets and production values are extremely high on Dimension 404, but the majority of episodes are pretty light compared to Electric Dreams or Black Mirror—the latter of which this show desperately tries to ape. On occasion, however, it does stumble upon some really great storytelling.
“Cinethrax” stars Patton Oswalt as a cool uncle trying to connect with his teenage niece by attending a 3D viewing of a popular science-fiction movie. What should be a heartwarming bonding moment is thwarted by his niece’s teen tropes (texting with friends! cute boys!) and his own painfully realistic fanboy gatekeeping. When it turns out that the horrors on the screen might be more than cinema magic, however, his attempts to warn the millennial crowd and theater staff go from humorous to horrifying. Overall the episode has a blend of vibes. It’s one part classic Twilight Zone, where even the twists have twists, but it also—thanks to Oswalt’s pitch-perfect performance—serves a bit of a jab at the holier-than-thou, exclusionist attitudes of many contemporary geeks old enough to gripe about something being “cooler back before whatever current thing it is now.” More funny than frightening, “Cinethrax” is a solid standout from an otherwise unremarkable series.
5. Room 104 (HBO)
Noteworthy Episode: “The Internet”
Room 104 features the same setting, the eponymous hotel room, for each of its bizarre stories. Perhaps the most eclectic of all the anthology series on this list, its topics range from cult leaders and sexual deviants to ghosts and oddly powered children. The best episode, though, is almost absent of genre altogether, acting as more of a wildly relatable character study in which the driving factor isn’t harrowingly scary so much as it is mildly urgent.
The premise of “The Internet” is almost too simple. It’s the ’90s, and a 20-something-ish Indian man has landed a meeting with a literary agent. He wants to have his completed novel with him for the pitch meeting, but in order to finish his manuscript, he needs his luddite mother, who doesn’t even want to use her answering machine because she doesn’t know how, to email it from the laptop he left at her apartment—a device that completely confuses her and that she calls the “black foldy thing.” The remainder of the episode primarily consists of phone conversations in which the author is desperately trying to explain how to do this. It’s trivial, it’s pedestrian, and it’s also incredibly relatable. The story never falls into a mockery of the mother’s technical ineptitude, nor does it present the young man as anything other than earnestly trying to accomplish an otherwise simple task. It’s a magnificent and entertaining study of two people whom you almost certainly know in your real life, with a climax that stirs up a different kind of reaction than expected. It’s definitely an episode worth repeated viewings.
Obviously, the episodes listed here are just a tiny fraction of the vast amount of anthology content available now, but they are a great gateway to the vast world of contemporary anthology television. They’re just a few of my faves—what are some of yours?