Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Nightmares & Dreamscapes & anthology series

Nightmares & Dreamscapes is a fun, stylish retelling of several Stephen King short stories. It's nothing incredible, but as summer TV fun goes, it's pretty great. While all of the stories are a bit predictable, the production values are top notch, and it's a reminder of just how potent horror can be on television, where you often have to cut away and can't rely on cheap scares (like the cat jumping into frame).

But that's not what we're here to talk about. We're here to talk about anthology series.

In the early days of television (often referred to by those who don't know any better as the "golden age"), anthology shows were the bread and butter of the networks. A successful anthology show could run for weeks on end, since different writers, directors and actors were involved with each episode. Rod Serling, in particular, became one of the greats, writing the script for what would become Requiem for a Heavyweight before going on to do The Twilight Zone, one of the few anthology shows to have an obvious guiding hand overseeing it.

But there were others. Paddy Chayefsky's teleplay for Marty became an Academy Award winning film (and launched the writer on a prolific screenwriting career). Reginald Rose wrote a teleplay that was noticed by Henry Fonda and became Twelve Angry Men (Rose later returned to the script for a made-for-TV version for Showtime many years later -- one that closed a few niggling plot holes). Steven Spielberg himself directed an episode of the 70s anthology Night Gallery.

It's hard to know what, exactly, these shows were like. We have scripts and copies of some of these, but for the most part, they were shot on kinotype, a format that quickly decays. Most of them have never turned up in syndicated reruns or on DVD. (Remember the big hullabaloo in the 1980s over the "lost" episodes of The Honeymooners? Well, they were Jackie Gleason Show sketches shot on kinotype, and intact copies were unexpectedly found.) And because of this, the format never entered the national consciousness like the sitcom format did (I Love Lucy was one of the few shows shot on film, hence its survival to this day).

Obviously, The Twilight Zone survived, and sporadic attempts to launch genre anthology shows turn up now and then (most recently in the UPN revival of The Twilight Zone itself). Spielberg threw his hat into the ring with Amazing Stories, a series that was more inconsistent than most and lasted a disappointing two seasons (especially for NBC, which paid a large bundle to put the show on the air).

But, honestly, given the popularity of short, genre fiction, I don't see why a well-crafted anthology series couldn't work in a modern environment. The problem is the quality.

Because every episode of an anthology series is produced by a new creative team without a Serling-style mastermind (the truly interesting producers of television are more interested in serial stories in most cases), the quality tends to be all over the place. While Twilight Zone had a higher hit-to-miss ratio than most, it, too, had plenty of stinkers. And today's audiences are used to shows that don't vary massively in quality. Even a lackluster episode of House feels like an episode of house, thanks to the unprecedented amount of control showrunners are afforded in the television system that has evolved since the 1950s.

What it's going to take is a Ronald Moore or someone of his ilk who's interested in both genre TV and anthology storytelling. I don't think this person will need to be as hands-on as they would be with a regular series, but they would certainly need to take a look at each script before it went to filming.

Check out Nightmares & Dreamscapes though. It certainly heralds the arrival of TNT as a serious producer of interesting televised product.

And hope for the best with future anthology shows.

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