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A Taxonomy of Streaming Anthology Shows

Hulu's Monsterland is the latest in a booming genre.
  • Clockwise from top: Tina Fey and John Slattery in Amazon's Modern Love, Steve McQueen directs Amazon's Small Axe, Lizzy Caplan in Hulu's Castle Rock, and Wyatt Russell in Black Mirror. (Photos: Amazon, 20th Century Fox, Hulu, Netflix)
    Clockwise from top: Tina Fey and John Slattery in Amazon's Modern Love, Steve McQueen directs Amazon's Small Axe, Lizzy Caplan in Hulu's Castle Rock, and Wyatt Russell in Black Mirror. (Photos: Amazon, 20th Century Fox, Hulu, Netflix)

    Premiering today on Hulu, Monsterland is an anthology series in which each episode will present a narrative tale centered on a different creature, be they mythical or horrific. It's the latest in an ongoing trend. In the years since American Horror Story established the limited series as a vital and creative form of TV, streaming has fallen hard for the genre. Some go with a new story each season, while others take a central theme and riff on it with new, self-contained stories in each episode. And while network TV and cable gotten into this business as well, with shows like Fargo, Room 104 and Dispatches From Elsewhere, the wild-west atmosphere of streaming platforms has really given the genre room to grow.

    With so many anthologies to choose from, we broke the genre down into some recognizable niches, each one featuring several shows that have brought something unique to the experience.

    The Spooky Ones

    The Haunting of Hill House. (Netflix)

    We could delve into the psychology of why horror stories lend themselves so well to anthology shows. Does it harken back to campfire tales, where everyone would gather round and share a spooky story? Maybe it has to do with the malleability of horror movie monsters and how they're all different takes on the same general principle? Whatever the reason, horror is fertile ground for anthology shows, as American Horror Story has proven time and again. On streaming, these have been presented in both the season-long and episode-by-episode varieties.

    Hulu's Castle Rock took a brilliant angle on the vast landscape of Stephen King fiction, delivering two seasons, each with distinct stories (and some connective tissue thrown in as easter eggs), each paying homage to King's work while creating something new and twisty with his characters and themes. Similarly, Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House repurposed Shirley Jackson's original tale for its spooky first season, and is set to return next week for a second season (The Haunting of Bly Manor) with some of the same cast members in a completely new story, playing different characters, this time based on Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.

    Other horror anthologies have found success with episode-by-episode offerings. Hulu's Into the Dark offers up a new feature-length horror film every month, each corresponding to a different holiday. The series is currently in the middle of its second season, although the August and September episodes were put on hold, likely due to the pandemic. Oscar-winning director Guillermo Del Toro is in production on 10 After Midnight, a horror anthology for Netflix that will no doubt benefit from Del Toro's expert eye for horror.

    Quibi's 50 States of Fright found a gimmick for their horror anthology series as well, with a Sufjan Stevens-esque theme in which each episode involves a different U.S. state. A 50-state strategy is also where Hulu's Monsterland hopes to make its presence felt, with a horror series in which each episode is centered on a different creature (mermaids, angels, lake monsters et cetera) found in a different corner of the country.

    The Love Ones

    Malin Akerman and Orlando Bloom in Easy. (Netflix)

    Let's take a second to marinate in the irony that the two most accommodating genres for anthology series appear to be horror stories and love stories. There's a thin line between romance and evisceration, it seems. Probably the best example of a romance/relationships-based anthology series was Netflix's Easy, which ran from 2016-2019. Indie director Joe Swanberg wrote, directed, and edited the series, which consisted of standalone encounters between characters portrayed by a dizzying array of fantastic actors, including Kiersey Clemons, Dave Franco, Jake Johnson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Orlando Bloom, Aubrey Plaza, Judy Greer, Melanie Lynskey, and Zazie Beetz. While certain storylines were revisited once a season, the episodes remained self-contained, preserving the anthology vibe.

    On Amazon, the less well-received Modern Love was based on the New York Times weekly column of the same name and featured episodes written and directed by the likes of John Carney (Once) and Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe). The series attracted a starry cast for its one-off episodes about romance in New York City, including Anne Hathaway, Tina Fey, Dev Patel, Catherine Keener, and Julia Garner, but critics called it "dull," "empty," and a "hate-watch."

    One possible addition to this list, if it does end up getting a second season, is Hulu's adaptation of Four Weddings and a Funeral, which was conceived as a season-by-season anthology series with new characters each season.

    The Auteur-Driven Ones

    Kerry Bishe in The Romanoffs (Amazon)

    More and more, television is becoming a haven for auteurs who've beien either squeezed out by the marketplace of studio filmmaking, or are looking to spread their creative wings. Similarly, the anthology gives major creative minds a lot of space to work. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner went to Amazon to make his intricately strung-together anthology series The Romanoffs. The premise was that each episode would focus on a different character or characters who believed themselves to be descended from Russian royalty, and the cast — Christina Hendricks, Corey Stoll, Diane Lane, Kathryn Hahn, Aaron Eckhart, Isabelle Huppert, among many others — was a dream.

    Currently, Steve McQueen, director of the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave (and the Oscar-worthy Widows) is taking the first few episodes of his Small Axe anthology series around the film festival circuit, winning raves and blurring the lines ever further between film and television. The series, based in London's West Indian community in the 1970s, will take the form of five movie-length installments, and stars Star Wars' John Boyega and Black Panther's Letitia Wright, among others. It's set to premiere on Amazon on November 20.

    Of course, the auteurs don't always have to be writer/directors. Netflix made the very smart decision to get into the Dolly Parton business, and that's included Dolly Parton's Heartstrings, an 8-episode anthology where each episode was inspired by one of Dolly's famous songs. Again, anthology series like these attract great casts, and this was no exception, starring the likes of Kathleen Turner, Melissa Leo, and The Americans' Holly Taylor.

    The Sci-Fi Ones

    Fionn Whitehead in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. (Netflix)

    Of course, we couldn't talk about streaming anthology series without talking about Black Mirror. The British series crossed over to Netflix in 2016 and was a sensation, presenting sci-fi premises dealing with modern technology that became must-see streaming events. Like any good anthology series, the quality from episode to episode has varied (which makes them fun to debate about and rank), but the central premise of the series has indisputably taken root in the culture, placing it right alongside shows like The Twilight Zone when it comes to shorthanding bizarre stories of modern life.

    Speaking of which, there's The Twilight Zone itself, which re-booted in 2019 on CBS All Access under the auspices of Oscar-winning writer/director Jordan Peele. Categorizing The Twilight Zone as simple sci-fi is of course incorrect, strictly speaking, but the whole thing about that show is that you can never really pin down its exact genre. It's a category unto itself.

    Rounding out the sci-fi anthologies is Amazon's Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams — co-produced by Battlestar Galactica's Ronald D. Moore — which adapted the celebrated sci-fi author's work into ten standalone episodes starring Richard Madden, Anna Paquin, Bryan Cranston, Janelle Monae, Greg Kinnear, Terrence Howard, and many more. It wasn't a smash hit, but like all of these streaming anthology series, it reveled in the limitless possibilities that these shows can offer: big stars, wild stories, and room for talented TV creators to tell them.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Monsterland, Amazon Prime Video, CBS All Access, Hulu, Netflix, Quibi, 50 States Of Fright, Black Mirror, Castle Rock, Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, Easy, The Haunting of Bly Manor , The Haunting Of Hill House, Into the Dark, Modern Love, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, The Romanoffs, Small Axe, The Twilight Zone (2019 series)