An anthology TV series is a television show that focuses on the telling of separate, distinct, self-contained narratives.
Most of the time, each episode is its own individual story with its own characters, settings, beginning, middle, and end. Less commonly, the story could span an entire season, with each season being a sort of reboot with a new story, new characters, and new settings.
What about the actors? Well, sometimes the actors are brand new in every episode, with little to no repeats across stories. Other times, the same cast of actors are used to tell the different stories, with everyone playing a brand new character each time.
The Appeal of Anthology TV Shows
For many, anthology TV shows are an interesting breath of fresh air in a landscape full of serialized TV series with slow-burning, sprawling plots that meander across five, ten, or even more seasons.
Instead, we can expect a discrete story that only requires one episode (or one season) of investment. If it's just an episode, you can treat it like a movie; if it's just a season, you can treat it like a miniseries.
And there's an excitement when you head into every new episode or every new season. After all, story beginnings are often the most interesting part, and you get plenty of those with anthologies.
Each episode or season comes with a brand-new, distinct tone and atmosphere, which infuses most anthology TV series with a dynamism that many traditional TV shows lack.
Anthology television is great because it's an art form that elevates television beyond filler episodes, bottle episodes, and monster-of-the-week episodes. Having a definitive end in sight makes the entire story deeper, punchier, and more streamlined.
Not to mention the fact that anthology television allows creators to experiment with story ideas that would normally be too risky for a traditional TV show. Thus, we get even more unique narratives.
Here are some of the best anthology TV series of all time and how they helped to pioneer a new kind of television experience.
5. Love, Death & Robots (2019–Present)
Netflix has had tons of busts over the years, but amongst them there have been a handful of great TV shows. Few have been as original and as groundbreaking as Love, Death & Robots.
Created by Deadpool (2016) director Tim Miller and featuring David Fincher as an executive producer, the series was originally supposed to be a reboot of an animated sci-fi movie named Heavy Metal (1981).
However, after it was stuck in development purgatory, Netflix came in and agreed to distribute it—but only if they turned it from a movie into an anthology TV series. Miller and Fincher agreed.
They take the word "anthology" seriously, as each episode isn't just a new story with new characters—every episode employs a different animation style to suit its narrative, resulting in a vibrantly fun watch.
4. True Detective (2014–2019)
When viewers first settled down to watch True Detective in 2014, they knew they were watching something special—they just didn't know how good the show would end up being.
Each season centers on a different set of American detectives and their grisly, true-to-life investigations. It takes a look at the various dark, twisted, and horrifying things that they encounter, deepened by philosophical reflections on human nature.
The first season is widely agreed upon as the best season. If you go into it with that expectation, you'll find the second and third seasons are still good television—just not as good as the first.
3. Black Mirror (2011–2019)
Charlie Brooker created one of the most intelligent, depressing, yet hilarious interpretations of our tech-driven era and the inevitable ramifications that will arise in the future.
Black Mirror has been characterized as overly downbeat, but in all actuality, it provides us with a rather realistic look at how society could develop in certain areas (e.g. social media) if left unchecked.
On top of examining our society's relationship with technology, Black Mirror also explores how we interact with each other. It's a show that asks us: "How well do you really know yourself?"
Every episode is its own self-contained story about a different type of technology and a different aspect of society, and these episodes will definitely have you thinking about yourself in said society.
2. Fargo (2014–Present)
Joel and Ethan Coen made the movie Fargo (1996) with a particular vision in mind. Almost twenty years later, Noah Hawley picked up where those two mad geniuses left off by creating the Fargo TV series.
This brilliantly inventive reimagining of the original world finds Billy Bob Thornton at his psychopathic best, with Martin Freeman acting as his insecure foil. Murder, mayhem, and coincidences ensue.
The following seasons were equally as stellar, even if it seems like there was a slight dip in quality with the fourth season. However, the tone remains consistent and Hawley's vision proves solid.
There's a unique world depicted in the Fargo anthology series, full of crimes, betrayals, and a hilariously unique sense of humor. If you're looking for an anthology series that's sleek and modern, Fargo is it.
1. The Twilight Zone (1959–1964)
There will never be another The Twilight Zone, even if there have been several anthology TV series in the same vein.
Over the course of five short years, creator and presenter Rod Serling introduced us to over 150 different self-contained stories, with each one just as weird, unbelievable, and fascinating as the one that preceded it.
Firmly rooted in a blended genre of science fiction and magical realism, The Twilight Zone had limitless opportunities as far as the plot devices and story beats it could take, and they were all deeply interesting.
In fact, The Twilight Zone is so well-regarded that the Writer's Guild of America has ranked it as the 3rd Best Written TV Series of All Time.
With that in mind, combined with its lasting relevance in pop culture, it's a no-brainer for The Twilight Zone to take the top spot in our list of the best anthology TV series of all time.