Next week (June 5th, to be exact) sees the debut of NBC’s horror anthology series Fear Itself. Featuring episodes written and directed by some of the best the horror genre has to offer, news has started to break out in regards to how NBC is taking a huge gamble with a series of this nature when their efforts could be put towards shows that are proven commodities and guaranteed at obtaining the all important Neilsen ratings. I won’t lie, as of late, the anthology series doesn’t really have one hell of a great track record to stand on. In this day and age, that really comes as a surprise.
Television viewership has changed significantly over the past five years, due to the internet and DVD. This allows viewers to follow the weekly exploits of characters on shows such as 24, Lost and Dexter, amongst others, without fear of missing important twists in plot or character. But surly that can’t be the reason as to why the anthology series is dying a slow, painful death. If anything, it should be even more successful due to its easy accessibility. Well, it pains me to say, but the anthology series is no longer relevant because it has nothing relevant to say. And let’s not even talk about how every episode looks, sounds and essentially is the same.
The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Tales from the Darkside, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Tales from the Crypt- these are just a few of the television series that had an impact on my life, personally and professionally. What’s the connection? They are all anthologies, in which each episode is different than the last; new characters and new stories every week. What was once a mainstay in genre programming has now become a memory, only to be looked back upon by fools such as myself, desperately trying to hold on to the good old days.
The thing is, television isn’t the only medium that is suffering due to the lack of anthologies. Just look at the debacle Warner Bros. had on its hands weeks ago when they dropped Trick ‘r Treat from their upcoming catalogue; a decision that I will touch upon later.
The anthology harkens back to the series of radio programs aired during the advent of the radio itself. Eclectic arrays of tales were told- dramatic, humorous, scary, romantic. These programs catered to any and all tastes. That is, until the television arrived and it became only a matter of time before someone took advantage of the new visual medium.
In 1959, Rod Serling established the mold for the television anthology series. Get a group of intelligent, angry young writers and have them belt out stories to frighten and enlighten each and every week. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but Serling and his clan made it seem that way. They cleverly disguised modern day foibles in the form of aliens and monsters from other dimensions. For a show approaching its fiftieth year in the subconscious of pop-culture, Serling’s creation barely shows any wrinkles. The fact that it was created as an anthology enabled the show to be easily accessible to audiences; there was no need to watch the previous week’s episode in order to understand what’s going to happen on next week’s episode. Furthermore, the structure of an anthology allows the writers to try different methods in storytelling; sometimes they failed, most often they did not.
As is normally the case with television, success opens the floodgates for a barrage of similarly themes programs. Whereas The Twilight Zone primarily dabbled in the fantasy genre, The Outer Limits took its place in the realm of science fiction. Once again, the anthology structure was utilized and to great effect.
Eventually, the anthology gave way to the rise of the sitcom, but not without Serling trying one last time to capture the imaginations of his audience. Night Gallery was a modest success upon arrival; though it didn’t (and still doesn’t) come close to the quality and notoriety that his first series received. That was due mostly in part to network executives having more creative control over the show than Serling.
In 1972, Tales from the Crypt, a low-budget horror film adapted from the popular EC horror comics from the 1950s, gained almost immediate cult status. Its method of telling four separate tales that revolved around one bigger story struck a chord with a new generation and proved that the anthology was far from dead. Another big screen adaptation of EC comics, Creepshow, rampaged through screens with the help of George A. Romero and Stephen King in the 80s. It wasn’t until the mid-80s when the anthology returned to television, seemingly out of nowhere thanks to the influx in anthology films hitting cinema screens. And to think, it was essentially because of a collection of comic books that were accused of causing juvenile delinquency. During that time, The Twilight Zone returned in two incarnations: Twilight Zone: The Movie and another weekly anthology, The New Twilight Zone. Both, for their own controversial reasons, failed to truly strike a chord with the audience, even though they were fun in their own right. It’s just that, around that time, it seemed all of the anthology programs and films were dealing with the same subject matter over and over again. The formula initially worked because the storytellers had something important to say and they used creative methods to tell them. Naturally, when someone keeps repeating themselves, you stop paying attention. Tales from the Darkside, Freddy’s Nightmares- these were programs that tread familiar ground. And while they were entertaining distractions, there was something missing; something that prevented them from gaining momentum in the mainstream.
In 1989, all that changed with HBO’s weekly series Tales from the Crypt, based on the aforementioned EC comics. What made this anthology series successful for seven seasons was the fact that the storytellers treated the source material as what they were meant to be: morality plays. It may be hard to believe, but the comic books, at their most basic level, were indeed morality plays and the creators of the show realized that. These were stories that had something to say and the creators used the most accessible genre in order to tell them, which is why it is still remembered to this day. The stories were peppered with characters that did evil things and got their comeuppance as a result of their acts. Simple tales, with a powerful moral at the end. You can’t get much better than that.
Nowadays, the anthology series is pretty much dead. Readers with a good memory will undoubtedly remember the Goosebumps series in the mid-90s or even the Canadian classic Are You Afraid of the Dark? (a personal favorite of mine), two shows that started strong but quickly dissolved under the weight of their own popularity. And, of course, we all remember the two seasons of Masters of Horror, the show that was supposed to be a return to form for a number of horror directors and writers from the 70s and 80s; arguably the two greatest decades in the horror canon. While a number of episodes proved memorable, as a whole, the series failed to capture the audience’s imagination like it promised. This can be attributed to a number of factors. First, the fact that most of the stories were similar in tone made it hard to tell one from the other. The second was the all-important shooting style. I understand that the show was on a tight budget. But there was no excuse for the fact that the show essentially only had one visual style. The Twilight Zone can be forgiven for that due to the technical restraints of the time; although, re-watching the series, it proves to be quite stylish in its own right. But in today’s day and age, to have an anthology series without an eclectic visual identity seems like a missed opportunity. I mean, even Tales from the Crypt completed its run with a completely animated episode.
At the end of the day, what I’m wondering is, can the anthology ever be brought back to the mainstream? The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits both had a number of revamps in their history, with varying degrees of modest success. Very few anthology films are going into production, which is surprising. Trick ‘r Treat, an anthology film that appeared to recapture the essence of 70s and 80s style horror, was shifted throughout Warner’s release schedule until it was finally dropped from their catalogue altogether. No reason was given, nor did I expect to hear one. Although, the obvious reason is because anthologies have failed to make any sort of profit in years, which is a shame. Now it looks as if Trick ‘r Treat will not see the light of day for the foreseeable future and that is a crime in and of itself.
So, should NBC be worried about Fear Itself? Well, yes and no. Yes, because they are taking a chance with airing a horror anthology series on network television, which would significantly limit the extent in which they could utilize the horror genre. (Although, any intelligent horror fan would know that it doesn’t take gore to make a scary story.) And no, because the horror genre has proven time and time again to be incredibly successful regardless of quality (a disheartening fact, if there ever was one), which means NBC will undoubtedly have an audience when the show begins its 13 episode run next week. My only fear, and I truly hope to be proven wrong, is that the show essentially has nothing meaningful laying underneath all of the despair, gore and tension. That’s not to say that the show will not be enjoyable or successful; but if it wants to be remembered twenty or thirty years from now, it better have something important to say.