Some writers will tell you that television is not a gadget to have around the house. It’s definitely not something to have in the office when you’re trying to get things done, but I really have a hard time imagining any house today that doesn’t have one or two. Like everyone else, writer’s like to have some downtime between their stories to relax and recharge, and TV isn’t such a bad way to spend it.
Justin Cronin, author of The Passage, once said that really good television has retrained us to enjoy long novels. Referring to his youth in the 70s, Cronin added, “The question of ‘what are you shows?’ would be like ‘what kind of heroin do you prefer?'” It’s true. Since The Sopranos for sure, the landscape of television has changed, and strong narrative arcs are pretty much required even in comedies and sitcoms.
My earliest experience of television was cartoons after kindergarten, especially Looney Tunes. The very first time I ever saw long-term storytelling on TV were the “who shot Mr. Burns” two-parter on The Simpsons and the week-long green ranger saga on Power Rangers. Since then, there have been many other greats, but I find anthology series to be really good for writers.
Some of the best ones are listed here…
The Twilight Zone
My God! Rod Serling was such a master storyteller. The Twilight Zone ran for five years. Granted, he was contractually obligated to write most of the series and grew tired of it after so long, but he was always as sharp as they came. Censorship, racism, the threat of war. These were some of the issues that gnawed on Serling’s mind, so much that he was one of the first major TV writers to fight over them with studio executive. The Twilight Zone was his outlet. The episodes he wrote weren’t just wonderful social commentary, but covered many different genres. There have been two remakes of the series since the 60s, and while there’s some debate over their quality, they are pretty good in their own right too.
Notable episodes include Time Enough At Last from the original run, A Little Peace and Quiet from the 80s revival, and Sunrise from the Forest Whitaker remake.
The Outer Limits
This one’s considered by some to be The Twilight Zone‘s close cousin, but aimed more at science fiction than anything else. The Outer Limits first ran in the 60s with The Twilight Zone, but it was the 90s remake I first found, and I guess my opinion is a little sentimental. Guest starring on the show was like the adult version of a guest spot on The Simpsons. Each episode attractive an impressive cast. The 90s version was also notable in that it had numerous crossover episodes and story arcs in which certain characters such as time traveler Nicholas Prentice reappeared.
Notable episodes include The Sandkings with Beau Bridges, Second Thoughts with Howie Mandel, and Simon Says with Joel Grey.
Tales From the Crypt
Okay, look, the Cryptkeeper has never really been scary. I mean, yes, he looks scary, but then he gets carried away with the puns. Tales From the Crypt was a great horror-centric companion on the air to The Outer Limits. The stories were frightening, but with just the right amount of humor to diffuse the tension. And if The Outer Limits got amazing guests, so did this show. Bob Hoskins. Brad Pitt. Ewan McGregor. Daniel Craig. Demi Moore. It’s very impressive seeing all these A-list names on what was really a B-list show. Their best episode, I think, was Yellow starring Kirk Douglas and his son Eric. Robert Zebecks directed this World War I drama about a general forced to execute his son for cowardice.
Along with Yellow, notable episodes include Top Billing and Only Sin Deep (not to be confused with the sixth season’s Only Skin Deep).
American Horror Story
If the three series so far have been short story collections, then American Horror Story can be compared to a set of novels with each episode serving as a chapter. That format really surprised people. Now, with True Detective and the upcoming American Crime Story, it seems to have set a new standard for television. I was personally impressed with how creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck were able to get my interest in the kinds of stories I don’t usually gravitate towards such as ghost stories and witches. More than that, they’re writing stories in which the horror is the icing on the cake. There’s something else at work on a deeper level. Season 1 – Murder House – is about infidelity. Season 3 – Coven – is about the pressure of being a teenage girl. I’m really looking forward to season 5’s Hotel, and my gut’s telling me it’s not going to be a rehash of Psycho or The Shining.