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The Problem With the Episodic Anthology

With ‘Amazing Stories,’ Apple TV+ is investing in yet another series that features a different tale per episode, but the Steven Spielberg–produced show is just more evidence that the format is not quite suited for television

Getty Images/Apple/Ringer illustration

Steven Spielberg was one of the crown jewels in Apple’s initial slate of talent for its nascent streaming service, paraded out Avengers-style in a presentation last March, almost exactly a year before the eventual launch of his collaboration with the tech giant. The get was particularly impressive given Spielberg’s purported tension with Netflix over theatrical distribution and awards eligibility, which was peaking around the same time. The brewing conflict was soon called off, and was always exaggerated; for one thing, the director’s production company, Amblin Entertainment, already had a working relationship with his supposed nemesis. Still, Apple’s front-and-centering of Spielberg, alongside the likes of Oprah and Reese Witherspoon, was both a flex and a promise, suggesting Apple might be creator-friendly in ways Netflix was not—and that Spielberg could be as formative to TV+ as Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston.

Yet it’s likely you haven’t heard much about Amazing Stories, the new anthology series that boasts Spielberg as executive producer and revives the NBC series he created in the mid-’80s. In part, that’s because Apple made only a single episode available to critics in advance, with a coverage embargo that didn’t lift until the morning of its premiere last Friday. Neither represents a vote of confidence in the show, an impression borne out by its initial outing, “The Cellar.” Written by A Simple Favor’s Jessica Sharzer and directed by Chris Long, the hour-long episode is a star-crossed, time-traveling romance between a modern-day construction worker (Teen Wolf alum Dylan O’Brien) and an aspiring singer (You star Victoria Pedretti) living in 1919, where he’s magically transported during a severe wind storm. Everything feels perfunctory, from the acting to the plot. The latter unfolds in a series of easily anticipated clichés: the woman who feels forced into a marriage for money rather than love; the man who sacrifices himself for her freedom; the reductive hindsight that pits the free-minded future against the repressive past.

Watching Amazing Stories, however, it’s hard to fault the show itself. Without additional context, a single episode is difficult to take as a referendum on an entire series, let alone Spielberg’s future role in the Streaming Wars. (Without a writing or directing credit, Amazing Stories’ Spielberg influence might peak in its opening sequence, which features retro graphics and sweeping John Williams theme music borrowed from the original.) Instead, Amazing Stories struggles feel more indicative of its format, an increasingly popular structure as TV’s always-escalating arms race grows ever more frantic. The episodic anthology—in which every installment has a separate story and cast, often connected only by shared themes and collaborators—has an understandable appeal in the current creative climate. It’s also inherently flawed.

After all, Amazing Stories fusion of sci-fi (time travel!) and old-fashioned fable (the power of love!) in a limited space puts it in conversation with The Twilight Zone, another classic anthology that saw a tepidly received revival last year, shepherded by Jordan Peele and aired on CBS All Access. Both shows establish the episodic anthology as a throwback, a template that dates back to television’s earliest days and the medium’s roots in radio and live theater. (Seemingly every other show broadcast in the 1950s had the word Playhouse in its title.) And both shows call into question whether the episodic anthology actually makes sense for a time when audiences have grown accustomed to serialized TV, and TV itself has made serialization—and the creative dividends that come with it—its signature advantage.

The episodic anthology is not to be confused with the seasonal anthology, which Ryan Murphy single-handedly introduced to the prestige TV vernacular with American Horror Story in 2011. Murphy’s decision to change settings and much of his cast between volumes became the signature creative choice in the coming decade. Movie stars were lured in by the prospect of more real estate than a feature but less commitment than a multiseason show; publicists salivated at the ability to exploit a loophole in awards shows’ criteria for “limited” series, which went from one of the Emmys’ sleepiest categories to its most contentious. With some exceptions, episodic anthologies have been neither as star-studded nor as decorated, but the success of True Detective, Big Little Lies, and the like undoubtedly paved the way for an even more drastic break with long-term storytelling.

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror premiered on the BBC mere months after American Horror Story and soon became the de facto standard bearer of a different, related trend: the episodic anthology, uniting various Booker-penned short stories around the shared theme of technology. (The show would officially migrate to Netflix, where it found much of its international audience, four years later.) Less influential in the episodic space, though more creatively consistent and critically admired, was High Maintenance, the Brooklyn stoner series that migrated from Vimeo to HBO while remaining under the auspices of star Ben Sinclair and his now-ex-wife Katja Blichfeld. Together, the two shows suggested that a vintage format could be modernized with contemporary concerns, whether robots or recreational drugs. They also showed how the episodic anthology’s freedom and range could potentially alleviate the boredom that might prompt a viewer’s eyes to wander, especially with more competition than ever before.

Predictably, a deluge of imitators followed, of which Amazing Stories is only the latest. Hulu has Into the Dark, a monthly series of made-for-streaming horror movies produced in conjunction with Blumhouse. Amazon made an ill-timed swing with The Romanoffs, Matthew Weiner’s grandiose follow-up to Mad Men, and a saccharine entry into the rom-com race with Modern Love, based on the New York Times column. HBO’s Room 104 takes place in a single hotel room, with the occupants switching out week to week. Amazing Stories isn’t even the first anthology effort from Apple, whose Little America adapts a series of nonfiction stories about immigration into half-hour vignettes. And there’s more to come: AMC ordered an episodic anthology from Black Mirror writer Will Bridges last spring, the network’s first.

Yet, while some of these efforts are more successful than others—Little America, in particular, has feel-good charm to spare—none have replicated the success of the wave’s earliest entries. Rather, they’ve repeatedly run up against the episodic anthology’s built-in obstacles. Every entry in such a series has to build a world, tell a complete story, and then start over from scratch, abandoning its narrative progress instead of using it as a foundation. Pilot episodes are notoriously difficult tasks, forced to frontload exposition while also making room for the quirks and personality that make TV enjoyable. The episodic anthology, meanwhile, turns every episode into a pilot.

What the episodic anthology ultimately does is makes TV less like TV. That can pay dividends, gaining flexibility and scope; it can also present insurmountable challenges, losing more fully developed characters and extended plot. More than a century of feature film proves it’s not impossible to craft detailed portraits or tell satisfying stories in 90 minutes or less, but episodic anthologies still have to deliver the volume that can make TV a heavier lift than a movie, spinning multiple yarns instead of concentrating its resources on just one. It sacrifices many of TV’s perks while retaining its inherent difficulty.

Character is what forges the bond between audience and series, creating an intimate, parasocial relationship over weeks, months, and years. The episodic anthology can’t offer its viewership an answer to Jon Snow, or Tony Soprano, or Liz Lemon, and therefore wages an uphill battle for a sustained commitment. High Maintenance arguably works because it’s not actually a true anthology, at least in the strictest sense of the term; Sinclair’s The Guy appears in every episode, and the longer High Maintenance has gone on, the more the writers have fleshed out The Guy’s background and personal life. That shift is a concession to how TV acts as a guaranteed source of comfort, while also leaving room for a surprise Ira Glass cameo.

The episodic anthology also cedes TV’s other not-so-secret weapon: time. TV doesn’t just enter into our most private spaces, whether our dens or our bedrooms; it stays there, allowing us to experience shifts in protagonists’ lives, and potentially them to reflect ours. The effect is cumulative, with dozens of moment-to-moment shifts adding up to major movement—Walter White’s and Jimmy McGill’s downward spirals, or Abbi and Ilana’s gradual maturation into real adults. Episodic anthologies cut these journeys off at the stem, leaving viewers with a truncated stump where a saga could be. The Romanoffs became the most damning illustration of this hard truth, if only because it was so easy to contrast with Mad Men: picayune struggles on the one hand, more than a decade of almost real-time history on the other.

Amazing Stories is a useful case study for both of these issues, featuring a romance the audience hasn’t learned to root for and major decisions the show hasn’t had nearly enough space to set up. The show seems to be an intentional throwback, trading on Spielberg nostalgia to draw those who recognize the original, or just its family-friendly appeal, into Apple’s orbit—but it comes off more dated than deliberately retro. Thanks to its paywalled platform and middling execution, Amazing Stories seems unlikely to make a splash in and of itself. But perhaps it can be an opportunity to look back on why Black Mirror looks increasingly unlikely to be remembered as an American Horror Story–style game-changer, and more likely to go down as an exception that proves a rule. Sometimes, an anthology’s uniting theme (the unforeseen consequences of innovation; the risks and rewards of finding a new country; the joys of getting stoned) can be both specific and expansive—good enough, in other words, to make the trade-offs worth it. Finding that theme, however, is easier said than done.