The Televisual Top Five: My Favorite Sci-Fi/Horror Anthologies
Welcome to the second edition of this here feature. Last time out, I covered my top five shows that only lasted a single season. Yep, it took me a mere four months to find the time to do another one.
In honor of the recent announcement that CBS is once again trying to reboot The Twilight Zone, today I shall cover my five favorite sci-fi and/or horror anthology programs. Once again, this list is simply my opinion, and is not intended to be a definitive take on the subject. I also haven't seen every TV show to ever exist, and if I haven't seen it, it isn't eligible, for obvious reasons. So, without any further ado, let's kick things off with:
#5 - The Twilight Zone, Aired 1985-1987 on CBS/1988-1989 in Syndication, 110 Stories, Created by Rod Serling (based on the classic series)
Format: 60 minute episodes containing 2-4 segments of varying lengths, later changed to half hour episodes featuring a single story. Narration done by Charles Aidman, and later Robin Ward.
Guest Stars: Bruce Willis, Melinda Dillon, Dee Wallace, Piper Laurie, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Sherman Hemsley, Martin Balsam, Steve Railsback, William Petersen, Tim Thomerson, Dean Stockwell
The Best: Nightcrawlers, Dead Run, A Little Peace & Quiet, Shatterday, The Cold Equations, Wordplay, Examination Day, The Burning Man, Gramma, Profile In Silver, Take My Life...Please, Her Pilgrim Soul
This was CBS' first crack at "modernizing" the Zone, and while it may be tempting to simply write it off as a pale imitiation, the first season really did have some great episodes. The reason that this revival isn't thought of more fondly is a combination of network interference, and a really uneven tone from week to week. The original TZ series was itself well known for mixing the sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and comedy genres in all kinds of interesting ways, but Serling rarely took his show to the dark depths of despair that the 80's Zone often spends time in.
The 80's TZ was originally envisioned as a 10pm, more adult take on the classic series, but meddling CBS execs ended up demanding that it be aired at 8pm. This is widely known in the TV industry as the "family hour". The decision turned out to be an unwise one, to say the least, as the 1985-1986 season featured (among other things): nuclear war, a man's vietnam flashbacks becoming real, a small child being murdered by the government, a giant man-eating spider, a child-eating Grandmother, and (in the most controversial scenario by far) a man being sent to hell specifically for being gay. This was heavy stuff for 1985 primetime, and before long, the show was attracting lots of negative attention from both network brass and moral guardians alike.
The show ended up squeaking out a second season renewal, but was quickly canceled. The remaining produced episodes were burnt off on Saturday nights. TZ hibernated for about a year, until the revival itself was revived in the fall of 1988. A third season of 30 half hour episodes was produced for first run syndication, with the show ending for good in April 1989. The second and third seasons lacked much of the punch and intelligence contained in season one, and only a handful of segments are really worth watching at all. The first revival of The Twilight Zone died not with a bang, but with a whimper.
#4 - The Ray Bradbury Theater, Aired 1985-1986 on HBO/1988-1992 on USA, 65 Episodes, Created by Ray Bradbury (naturally)
Format: 30 minute episodes containing a single story. Introductions by Ray Bradbury himself.
Guest Stars: William Shatner, Peter O'Toole, Jeff Goldlbum, Drew Barrymore, Donald Pleasance, Michael Ironside, John Saxon, Elliott Gould, Louise Fletcher, John Glover, Eugene Levy, James Coco
The Best: Marionettes Inc., The Playground, The Crowd, The Lake, A Sound Of Thunder, The Veldt, Mars Is Heaven, Zero Hour, Let's Play Poison, The Lonely One, Punishment Without Crime, Banshee
The Ray Bradbury Theater was the definition of a one man show. Well okay, he obviously had a TV crew working for him, but this was his baby, for better or worse. Every episode's script was written by Bradbury, based on an existing Bradbury work, and was introduced on-screen by the author himself. While Bradbury was best known as a sci-fi author, his oeuvre included practically every genre under the sun at some point, and the "Theater" sometimes reflected this. This didn't always work in the show's favor though, as the best episodes tended to be the sci-fi or horror-ish ones, with the dramas and comedies often times falling flat. Some stories were outright boring at times, and a half hour show should never be a chore to sit through. It is this inconsistent nature in fact, that prevents me from ranking the show higher on this list.
Then again, when the "Theater" was good, it was really, really good. Episodes like The Crowd (where a crowd of prior car accident victims appears to prevent the latest one from getting oxygen), or The Lonely One (where a serial killer has been picking off women in a small town) have seriously creepy moments. Stories like A Sound Of Thunder (done a million times better than the awful 2005 movie), Punishment Without Crime, and Mars Is Heaven are done brilliantly, with first rate performances. The latter episode is home to what is perhaps my favorite concept in the whole series. Astronauts travel to Mars for the first time... and find all their dead loved ones waiting. The ending is a bit weak, but the idea itself is terrific. Another great one is The Lake, in which an adult man receives an unexpected reunion with his childhood playmate, who drowned decades prior. The ending is quite bittersweet.
Anyway, after the first two short seasons, HBO canceled the series in 1986. Then upstart cable network USA quickly pounced on it, creating four more seasons from 1988-1992. They would later do the same with another canceled HBO anthology series, that being The Hitchhiker. The entire series run of 65 episodes was released a few years back by budget company Platinum Disc Corp. (now Echo Bridge). The five-disc complete set can currently be purchased on Amazon for under 10 dollars. At that price, why not give it a shot?
#3 - The Outer Limits, Aired 1995-2000 on Showtime/2001-2002 on Sci-Fi, 154 Episodes, Created by Leslie Stevens (based on the classic series)
Format: 60 minute episodes containing a single story. Narrations done by Kevin Conway.
Guest Stars: Beau Bridges, Josh Brolin, Kirsten Dunst, Joshua Jackson, Nathan Fillion, Heather Graham, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Alyssa Milano, Howie Mandel, David Hyde Pierce, Mark Hamill, Robert Patrick
The Best: The Sandkings, Valerie 23, Second Soul, Under The Bed, Quality Of Mercy, Stitch In Time, The Voyage Home, Birthright, Mind Over Matter, First Anniversary, Afterlife, The Sentence, Tempests
Well, here we are at a crossroads. Right now, I'm sure many of you are wondering why I chose to rank the Outer Limits remake instead of the original series. There are several reasons for that. The first being that the original show only ran two seasons, and the second season wasn't great. The second reason is that I'm not a fan of the network's mandate that there had to be a "monster" in every episode. Most of the "suit-mation" looks extremely low budget, even by the standards of the time. This mandate also meant that the writers always had to shoe-horn these elements into every story, whether the tale in question needed it or not. Several episodes suffer because more time is spent on a man in a rubber suit rampaging that is spent on the interesting philosophical questions the episode might raise. While I still both like and own the original OL series, I find it to be a tad overrated.
The final reason is tied into the last one. The producers and writers on the revival series had near 100% creative freedom, which allowed them to tackle nearly every possible scifi (and some horror) plot known to man. Sure, there are some clunkers, but the vast majority of the Showtime seasons were host to complex writing, intriguing characters, and high concepts. Just some of the stories offered include a troll that snatches kids from under their beds, a time-traveling assassin that kills murderers, a body-jumping alien being that wears human beings, a journey into the mind of a coma patient, and a man trapped inside a dream, within a dream, within another dream. In short, this was some cool stuff. I have never understood the lack of recognition this show gets, and I'm proud to help combat that here. The "new" Outer Limits are a completely different beast from the original.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and the show effectively ended when purchased by Sci-Fi in the year 2000. The final two seasons suffered from dumbed down writing, sillier stories, and really stupid casting (Tom Arnold? Really?). I choose to pretend the show ended when the final Showtime episode aired. I'd advise you to do the same. Well, except for the two part "The Final Appeal", "Patient Zero", "Decompression", and "Gettysburg". Those are the five diamonds amidst the refuse.
The second season of the original Outer Limits had "Demon With a Glass Hand," which is arguably ne of the best hours in TV history anywhere. There were a few other good ones in there, too.
My favorite Bradbury would be The Coffin.
msd85 (Global Editor)
Level 39 (91%) Points: 17879.2 Since: 07/Jul/10
Message Posted On Oct 14th, 2013, 1:38 pm
I also loved Night Gallery ohdawn, it probably would have been #6.
Level 2 (17%) Since: 29/Apr/12
Message Posted On Jul 2nd, 2013, 10:01 am
what!! no night gallery
i loved that show
msd85 (Global Editor)
Level 39 (91%) Points: 17879.2 Since: 07/Jul/10
Message Posted On Jan 21st, 2013, 6:22 pm
Yeah, I saw Dark Realm on Chiller a couple years back. It was perhaps the worst anthology show I've ever seen. Badly written, badly acted, you name it, it sucked.
Message Posted On Jan 21st, 2013, 9:38 am
I remember watching one hosted by Eric Roberts called Dark Realm which was dreadful. No wonder it got canned after 13 episodes
Level 3 (9%) Points: 1.5 Since: 02/Aug/12
Message Posted On Jan 21st, 2013, 2:03 am
Good stuff! My dad introduced me to One Step Beyond, a Twilight Zone-like anthology series that he remembered from when he was a kid. It's on Netflix and it's pretty good too. Check it out if you haven't.