Dunno if you’ve noticed this, but a major trend in television these days is to make every show complex and layered with its own internal mythology, no matter its subject. Even comedies are all but required to have overarching plots and recurring secondary characters now. Generally this approach is good, but it has its drawbacks, a big one being a lack of anthology shows.
For the uninitiated, this term, inherited from radio drama, refers to a show that tells a different story with a new cast of characters every episode: famous examples include The Twilight Zone, The Storyteller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Outer Limits (there’s also a sub-category of shows that were both anthology-based and serial, like Quantum Leap or The X-Files). Yet, despite a couple of modern examples (Masters of Horror/Science Fiction; American Horror Story, kind of), this type of television isn’t too present at the moment: it seems to have had its heyday in the ’60s, with a revival in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Even some of the more successful shows of the later period (Amazing Stories, Ray Bradbury Theater) don’t seem to be recalled with much frequency.
It’s difficult to say anything is truly “forgotten,” because nothing is really forgotten about in the 21st century, is it? Thanks to the wonders of the tube-terwebs, stuff that you’re half-convinced you hallucinated as a child can be verified and shared in half an instant: that Sears commercial you were sure nobody else remembered is actually a cult Internet item everyone quotes. This makes the pop-culture artifacts that are actually obscure (like that action figure line with the snail-people that were all named after former US Presidents that I swear is real) all the more valuable, and difficult to gauge. In this topsy-turvy age, things that may have gone unnoticed at the time of their release could have ravenous followings now, and vice-versa. Not all of these shows necessarily deserve to be rediscovered, but for better or for worse, we take you now into the chilling world of obscure television.
11) Ghost Stories
Master of the macabre Rip Torn whisks you away into the world of ghosts and the unexplained. Sounds like a gas, huh? The fact that Torn is unseen is just one of the many awkward and unintentionally hilarious aspects of Ghost Stories, a series as generic as its title. It deserves a small place in our hearts for moments of dialogue like this:
Wife: What have I gotten myself into?
Husband: Uh…marriage? You’ve gotten yourself into a marriage.
Oh, and one more from the same scene: “Hey woman, it’s not my kitchen anymore.” I guess this show was on Fox Family? Although there’s nothing explicit, occasionally these shows are a tad…intense for viewing with the spouse and kids, and I can’t imagine families gathering around to watch it. The acting ranges from pine to balsa, and the production is generally on the same level of a Hallmark production. Torn’s sometimes ominous, sometimes bored-sounding voice overs reinforce the same aesthetic of lazy cheese. You might ask what connection Torn has to the realms of the unreal, and well you should: the truly learned among us know of the eternal balance of power maintained by a Rip of Dark and Rip of Light, embodied in our time by Rips Torn and Taylor respectively. As both Rip avatars near old age, the question of who will rise to take their place and sustain the Riptinuim is both vital to our existence and probably more interesting than the average episode of Ghost Stories.
10) Journey to the Unknown
A carnival of mystery and suspense…in terrifying color! Aside from an alarming opening sequence and a kickass creepy theme tune, this groovy British program boasted some genuine horror cred, as it was produced by Hammer Studios around the same time that its horror revivals were getting popular. Sadly, that did not mean a hosting gig by Christopher Lee, but it did mean an eerie, cinematic feel. Actually, some of the episodes were harvested for feature film material later.
Most of the stories featured some otherworldly element, whether it was time travel, ghosts, or telepathy, but there was also a focus on psycho-sexual hangups, like a man falling in love with a mannequin or a boy raised to be a girl. Which means that it’s entirely possible that the infamous twist of a certain low-budget camp horror movie originated here. Food for thought. Journey to the Unknown is also notable for being one of the few shows of its genre to not have a narrator/host, although the movies did include linking segments from actors like Patrick McGoohan and Joan Crawford. All in all, these are mostly fun and very “of the times” in an entertaining way. Ah, for the days when simply showing a negative version of a photograph was shocking and spooky.
When I lived in London back in 2008, there were billboards everywhere promoting this series of modern adaptations of fairy tales, beating Once Upon a Time and Grimm to the punch by several years. Now, it’s all I can do to believe that they happened at all. According to Wikipedia and IMDB, there were four episodes produced, one of which was apparently directed by frequent Doctor Who contributor Euros Lynn, and each one tried to put a sort of twist on a classic fairy tale while keeping most of the stuff we remember. The “Rapunzel” episode, for example, casts the princess as a tennis star whose mother/manager keeps her sequestered in order to “preserve the brand.” There’s also at least 100% more cross-dressing in that than I remember in the original.
Other stories sourced include “Cinderella”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and (I’m serious) “Billy Goats Gruff,” which was retooled to be about a boy band. I can’t seem to find any clips of that one, but if you’re really curious you can read the story behind it here. And you know you want to. These might seem trifling but it was probably either this or make all of these characters witch hunters in feature films, so perhaps we should count our blessings.
8) Night Visions
Hosted by Henry Rollins for some reason, this Fox series aired for a single season at the tail end of The X-Files‘ run. Coincidence, or alien conspiracy? Each episode contained two stories awkwardly introduced and concluded by Rollins in front of a green screen, as if he were trying to sell you heartburn medicine or something. The show itself wasn’t too bad, and “Dead Air,” which featured Lou Diamond Phillips as an assholish DJ who slowly finds himself threatened by a mysterious outside force does manage to be actually scary. But on the whole, Night Visions lacked the sort of oomph of a great anthology horror series, and so it went the way of The Downer Channel, vanishing like a giant eyeball-shaped cloud into the mists.
7) Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction
Not to be confused with either the much-loved Thrilling Adventure Hour segment or the classic Men at Work song of the same name. Originally, the host was James Brolin, but things really hit their stride with the second season when the helm was passed to William T. Riker himself, Mr. Jonathan Frakes. Yes, that’s right. On a set that looked kind of like a lower-rent version of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum, Frakes showed us optical illusions, posed with historical trinkets, and talked us through a series of five playlets centered around extraordinary things. Some were true-ish; the others were lies, or possibly rejected Dead Zone plots. It was basically an hour-long, TV version of that one game from Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, but with a higher chance of an appearance by the Rip of Light. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that some of the stories were actually not really that far out of the range of belief, that being part of the point.
A more traditional anthology series hosted by Frakes would be great, but at least this one gives us five times the chance to see his oddly alluring smile, especially as he dismissed the false stories. Not much explanation was given to the “true” vignettes, other than the fact that they were, uh, “fact,” even when they were sometimes just loosely based on things. I feel sorry for the writers who had to churn out all these different scenarios, as well as roughly 90 billion different ways for Frakes to say “it’s fiction.”
6) Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrible
“Venomous lobster jism. Paralyze a man in seconds.” While Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace spoofed 80’s horror and hospital shows, another cult British comedy series paid homage to an earlier era of hammy goodness. Steve Coogan starred alongside Simon Pegg, Warwick Davis and others in send-ups of all different flavors of ’60s/’70s horror, from a witch’s curse story to a parody of politically insensitive “yellow peril” thrillers. Episodes had appropriately over-the-top titles like “Lesbian Vampire Lovers of Lust” and “Scream Satan Scream!” that are actually pretty indistinguishable from real B-movie titles.
You’re either onboard with this premise or not, and clearly the more you know the source material the more you’ll get out of it. Like Darkplace, this show was probably fated from the outset to only have one series, but it still holds a place of honor among cult humor fans.
5) Perversions of Science
Yeah, three guesses whether this one was heavier on the science or the perversion. Actually, it was disappointingly light on both. For those of you who thought Tales from the Crypt too tasteful, HBO gave us this similarly-themed selection also based on an EC Comics line, sort of a Tales from the Self-Consciously Trashy Sci-Fi Crypt. The host, a CG gynoid named Chrome, invited us to witness stories of the strange and technological that she kept inside her robo-breasts. In case you didn’t get it, this show really wanted you to know that it might have sex in it, because HBO can show tits and that makes it the channel for quality, sophisticated programming (although I’m sure you missed the incredibly subtle message at 1:02 in the opening).
Of the ten episodes produced, “The Exile” is mildly worth it to see Jeffery Combs Combsing it up and saying lines like “that makes the tip of my dick cry.” “Boxed In” features William Shatner as a space admiral whose potential son-in-law gets tempted by a sexbot, resulting in some stupid/hilarious sexual slapstick that has to be seen to be believed. Other than that, you’re probably not missing much. Speaking of sexbots, I will say this: if Chrome is still out there, looking for work, I’m sure Luke might be able to work something out with TR’s current logo…
4) The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes
To anglophilic lit obsessives, the premise of this series was a godsend: instead of adapting Arthur Conan Doyle for the umpbillionth time, why not spotlight other lesser-known fictional detectives of the same era? Ok, so the execution left something to be desired, but you have to give them points for concept. Adapted from a literary anthology of the same name, Rivals ran for 26 episodes total – a robust number for a British program – and generously gave screen time to sleuths otherwise unknown.
Heroes included Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, “gentleman thief” Simon Carne (gotta love a good gentleman thief), and Professor van Dusen, the “Thinking Machine,” who was not, sadly, a crime-fighting clockwork robot. Inevitably, the quality wavered, and there are certainly cases in which some of these characters were forgotten for a reason. A major standout, though, was the chance to finally see William Hope Hodgson’s creation Thomas Carnacki, one of the earliest examples of a paranormal investigator, in action. Unlike Holmes, who regularly disproved the existence of the supernatural, Carnacki believed it to be true and fought against it using fantastical turn-of-the-century devices like an “electric pentagram” or a “camera.” Donald Pleasence played the mild-mannered Carnacki, and although the episode itself leaves a lot to be desired, I’m just happy we’ve seen the Ghost Finder onscreen at all.
With the lack of originality banging around Hollywood these days it probably won’t be long until he shows up again, probably being played by John Cusack. Oh well. At least if that happens they’ll probably pick a better tale to adapt than “The Horse Invisible” (spoiler: it’s about a European hamburger! Just kidding. It’s actually about a horse that can’t be seen).
3) Way Out
Though he may be more famous for giving children nightmares and coining the term BFG long before Doom, Roald Dahl was also an accomplished short-story writer in his time, famous for his twist endings and mordant sense of humor. In the ’80s, a long-lived program called Tales of the Unexpected adapted many of Dahl’s works for the small screen with much success, but the wicked Welshman had appeared on television before as host for the surreal Way Out in the early ’60s.
Like its similarly minded contemporaries, the show provided suspenseful and horrific stories but with a distinctive sense of irony. There were also numerous self-aware references to the nature of television: one story featured an actress trapped on a TV set, another opened with a woman declaring that her surroundings were “just like a TV show!” Dahl bookended each episode, smoking a cigarette or drinking a cup of tea while apparently seated in another dimension. His strange, leisurely monologues about the mating habits of spiders or being checked out by undertakers were the show’s highlight and offered numerous quotable lines (one story is introduced as being unsuitable for children, “young lovers or people with stomach disorders”). If you watch the full episodes on YouTube, you may get the added bonus of seeing actual cigarette commercials, a relic of a bygone time. And no, I don’t think we ever get any explanation for what the intro sequence is supposed to represent, so your guess is as good as mine.
2) Spicy City
Ralph Bakshi is an undisputed indie auteur in the world of animation, a man notorious for sticking to his guns and producing bizarre and often meandering films that were always unmistakably of his signature, for better or worse. As one of the leading “adult” animators in 1998, he seemed a natural choice to helm an adult cartoon series for HBO, supposedly to compete with the nascent South Park. The result was Spicy City, a cyber-noir show with a title that sounds like a place you’d buy chicken wraps from in the mall but actually referred to the titular futuristic dystopia.
Narrated by dark-eyed chanteuse Raven, each episode wove a tale of hapless life in a seedy metropolis, a world of robot prostitutes, psycho cops and virtual-reality love affairs in one of those charmingly inaccurate visions of the internet that the ’90s seemed keen on producing. The series finale gave Raven her own episode, revealing a tortured past and pitting her against an evil chemical company responsible for engineering an AIDS-like virus. But it wasn’t just about the chance to see cartoon characters get naked and say dirty words; Spicy City also offered classic sci-fi tropes of body horror and technological anxiety, borrowing a lot from the aesthetics of genre predecessors like Blade Runner.
Say what you will about the show’s sometimes-flat graphic style: it certainly deserved another season, and parts of it are arguably as good as (perhaps better than) Heavy Metal. Actually, ratings were pretty solid at the time and a second season was commissioned, but disputes between Bakshi and the network resulted in the project being dropped. It’s surprising more animation buffs don’t seem to talk about this one: it barely even makes one page in the Bakshi coffee table book/biography Unfiltered. That’s too bad, because had this become longer-lived it might have proven a more accessible capstone to the man’s divisive body of work.
1) The Twilight Zone
“Wait a minute,” you’re probably saying. “The Twilight Zone is one of the best known anthology series of all time! You even mentioned it in the intro!” And it’s true. Everybody knows Twilight Zone…the original, that is. But the show was revived twice, and is supposedly in line for a new adaptation. You might remember the 1985 series, but I doubt even the people involved could recall the 2002 incarnation, hosted by an on-screen Forest Whitaker.
Other celebrities that can be seen here include Jason Alexander as Death and Katherine Heigl trying to kill baby Hitler. There were a few remakes of classic stories, as well as a sequel to “It’s a Good Life,” that showed the former tyrannical boy as an adult, still played by Bill Mumy. This run lasted 44 episodes in all, which may seem like a lot, but it’s chump change compared to the original’s 156, or even the 80’s version’s 65. This is one case where I would actually welcome a remake, as long as the new version was willing to experiment and try different types of stories. Oh, and as long as no member of Korn was allowed within 50 yards of the theme song at any time.