Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Bite-Sized Televised Horror

Are you watching Fear Itself on NBC (Thursdays at 10)? If not, why the hell not? Okay, the episodes have been a little uneven and have shown a little too much preference for law-and-order based stories (detectives, escaped convicts, etc), but the show gets major points for not shying away from gruesome and downer endings. It’s not afraid to go there, wherever there is – the land of red-tinted corn syrup with a hint of Bosco, maybe. Most importantly, it’s brought back the great tradition of anthology shows to primetime.

I love anthology shows. My dad raised me on anthology television shows and short stories, which I either responded favorably to because of my ADD or which helped cause my ADD…chicken/egg, that. Anyway, this week’s episode was penned by AICN’s Moriarty, and if you check out his blog before the show airs, you can snag a copy of the script, which is awesome if you’re an aspiring television writer or anthology TV enthusiast.

Unfortunately, the genre isn’t well represented anymore. The closest shows I can think of currently are Law and Order (and the various spin-offs) and Doctor Who, neither of which are even really anthology series, but they often utilize a Monster of the Week format that make them easy for casual viewers to watch. (When I was working evenings a while back, L+O was the only show I could watch because I knew I could miss four or five episodes and come back in having missed nothing of import.)

In honor of NBC resurrecting this waning genre, these are my Top 5 Anthology Television Series:

1) The Twilight Zone
This is the mother of them all and still the best. When I was growing up, New Year’s Day was spent at my grandmother’s house, and when my dad and I managed to wrestle the remote away from my football-loving uncle and cousins, we always put on the TZ marathon. Nowadays, of course, the SciFi channel runs a TZ marathon for every holiday imaginable – “Oh, hey, it’s Guy Fawkes Day? Time for a Twilight Zone marathon!” – but back then we looked forward to it all year. My favorite episode is “Time Enough at Last”, with Burgess Meredith, and if you haven’t seen it already, hop on over here and watch it stat. My dad prefers “The Lonely” which is of course a wonderful episode as well, but doesn’t compare to that last shot of Meredith’s Henry Bemis amidst the ruins of the library. (After “Time” and “Lonely”, I have to go with “Nick of Time”, which features a young Shatner and a winking devil head which my dad gave me a replica of (the devil, not Shatner) for a graduation gift. Yes, I have a weird family.)

2) Tales From the Dark Side
SciFi has recently picked this one up in syndication, and alas, it hasn’t aged as well as TZ. It’s a lot cheesier than I remember. But I still love the opening theme, and there are some solid episodes. I recently tuned into one penned by George A. Romero, he of the zombie empire. That’s half the fun of these anthology shows, you know. Seeing where directors, writers, and actors cut their teeth, or even where established storytellers took their good ideas that just couldn’t sustain a full-length feature but made perfect 30-to-60 minute pieces.

3) Monsters
This one also had a huge impact on my childhood. When I was growing up, my mom worked weekends, so while she did most of my rearing Monday through Friday, Saturdays especially fell to my dad. We’d usually go to one of NJ’s assorted historical attractions during the day, come home, make dinner, then watch Doctor Who (episodes featuring the Fourth Doctor on WLIW) and Monsters. This one definitely wasn’t meant for kids – it aired at midnight, actually, and my mom woulda skinned my dad if she knew what he was letting me watch. And she almost did skin him when one episode - “The Farmer’s Daughter” - gave me nightmares for weeks. And I don’t scare easy. The only other movies that have had the honor of giving me fullass check-under-the-bed-wake-up-screaming creeps are Child’s Play 3, The Blair Witch Project, Pulse, and Dead Silence. So yeah, Monsters was actually pretty scary. It’s in syndication now on a channel I don’t get, Chiller, but I wish like hell they’d put this on DVD.

4) The Outer Limits (Modern Series)
The one thing you have to give anthology shows, they have kickass credit sequences. In fact, all five shows on this list have fan-freaking-tastic and iconic credit sequences. I think Outer Limits is a little more hit-or-miss than the other shows on this list, but it had some great episodes, and you can still catch it at odd times in syndication. Definitely worth checking out.

5) Are You Afraid of the Dark?
Okay, I never found any of these actually scary, but keep in mind I was already watching the grownup anthologies at the time. Compared to some of the shit going down on Monsters and Tales From the Darkside, Are You Afraid of the Dark? was child’s play. But some of the stories were interesting, and it stands as a legend in the minds of my weaned-on-SNICK generation.

Honorable Mentions: Tales From the Crypt, Amazing Stories, Poltergeist: The Legacy (not a true anthology, closer to The X-Files in model), Freddy’s Nightmares, and the lone non-sci-fi/fantasy title on this list, MTV’s Undressed.

So check out Fear Itself on Thursday. What do you have to lose? Best case, you’ll get a kickass hour of television, worst case, at least you won’t have to see any of the characters ever again.


Anonymous said...

Oh dear, I have to confess that I have no idea what "anthology" means in this context. Sounds like it could mean episodic. But when people talk about Twin Peaks, a show that didn't make it to Ireland, they talk about it having a convoluted plot. So I don't think that can be it.

It's too much to hope for that "Bosco" is a reference to the cute puppet whom every last Irish child of my generation was entranced by, isn't it?

ooh, being five years old and writing a paragraph about "My Favourite TV Show" for Teacher!

...I will shut up now.

smd said...

In this context, anthology means...well, okay, if every normal television show is comparable to a novel, then an anthology show is comparable to a short story collection where the stories may be thematically linked but don't usually share the same characters, plot, setting, or even the same author. Each week you get a new story with a beginning-middle-end (usually a half-hour or hour long, depending on the show) and all new characters. Every story can stand totally alone, it's almost like a short film, really. (The exception being the quasi-anthology series I mentioned, like Law and Order, and even The X-Files, where characters do continue from episode to episode but are almost framing devices for the MOTW plots, as most episodes can stand alone - a villain is introduced and vanquished in the space of an hour.) So not like Twin Peaks, which is just convoluted a la Lost.

And ha, nope, different Bosco. Yours is much cuter. No, this Bosco is a chocolate syrup added to milk to make it chocolatey. Ot, in low-budget Hollywood productions, it's added to red-tinged corn syrup "blood" to darken it and thicken it up and make it more realistic-looking. (This I learned the disgusting way, when in high school I acted in a black and white 8MM "horror film", and the lunatic director pretty much coated me in chocolate sauce and ketchup (because we couldn't afford corn syrup...) for the death scene. Not a pleasant combination to be doused in while laying for hours in the summer sun. Just, you know, in case it sounded like something you'd want to try...)