In 2010, when Charlie Brooker was putting together Black Mirror—his TV series that introduces a new technological dystopia with each episode—the latest golden age of television was in full swing. Mad Men was in its redemptive fourth season. Breaking Bad was riding high, pitting Walt and Jesse against two-faced villain Gus Fring. Hell, even Dexter and True Blood were still good. There were so many sagas to discover, and Britain-bred Brooker found it all to be utterly exhausting.
“Everything was moving toward these long, complex arcs,” he says. “Someone would say, ‘Have you seen this show? It really gets good around season three.’ Fuck me! To settle into a new big, multiseason epic, it was like buying a house.”
Brooker was a big fan of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but he also felt that a certain type of storytelling had been lost.
“I was missing short-form, what-the-fuck stories,” he continues. “I missed the freedom and the flexibility you would get and the sense of collecting—a bit like ticking off Pokémon. I missed stories about ideas.”
What he missed was anthology shows. Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, which debuted in 1959 on a rogue wave of what-if premises and twist endings, set the standard for TV anthologies. The format soon faded, but it experienced a revival—its first—while Brooker was growing up in the 1980s. U.S. viewers had Tales From the Crypt, Ray Bradbury Theater and Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, along with reboots of The Twilight Zone and another classic 1950s show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The U.K. had similar anthology series at that time, and they made a big impression on Brooker—even when he was too young to watch shows like Hammer House of Horror.
Black Mirror debuted on Britain’s Channel 4 in 2011, loaded with bold and sometimes shocking plotlines that once again breathed new life into the anthology format. When it found its way to Netflix in 2014, it became one of the most talked-about shows in the U.S. That same year, a bastion of TV anthologies began to take shape with the incredible first season of HBO’s True Detective and the slow build of FX’s American Horror Story—two series that have evolved the format by stretching one story over a single season.
I missed the freedom, the flexibility, the sense of collecting—a bit like ticking off Pokémon. I missed stories about ideas.
Meanwhile, emerging novelist and screenwriter Nick Antosca was dreaming up what would become the new Syfy anthology Channel Zero, which adapts horror fiction that has gained fame as internet “creepypasta”—a user-generated matrix of urban legends circulated via e-mail and online forums. When he and co–executive producer Max Landis first tried to sell it a couple of years ago, Antosca remembers, “Nobody was interested in anthology shows. So I went off and did season three of Hannibal. Max did American Ultra and some other movies, and we came back a year later. Suddenly there was True Detective, there was American Horror Story, there was Black Mirror, and people were like, ‘This is a good idea.’ ”
Since then the trend has exploded, with networks planning to air more new anthologies in 2017 than they have since the earliest days of television. Ironically, two of the most prestigious producers of multiseason-arc series are drawing on their top talent for new anthologies: HBO hired Mark and Jay Duplass for Room 104, in which each episode will track a different set of guests through the titular hotel room, and AMC is featuring Mad Men’s Jared Harris in the “anthology drama” The Terror. TruTV, meanwhile, has ordered episodes of Bobcat Goldthwait’s Messed-Up Stories (reminiscent of another rulebook-shredding anthology, Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories on Adult Swim), while Lifetime has a pilot for the “Shakespeare thriller anthology” A Midsummer’s Nightmare, and TBS has a horror-comedy from Parks and Recreation’s Aubrey Plaza called Nightmare Time.
So why would anthologies flourish in the 1950s, 1980s and 2010s? Bob Bralove, a Bay Area musician known primarily for producing the Grateful Dead who also worked on the 1980s Twilight Zone, believes the answer lies with new platforms and the flood of ideas that have come along to fill them. “The 1950s, television. The 1980s, cable. Now, internet,” he says. “Each time the market expands for content, there’s this abundance of stories.”
Brooker sees another, darker connection. “They are all periods of uncertainty. In the 1950s, you had the Cold War; in the 1980s, it looked like we were facing nuclear extinction again, and you had a lot of upheaval going on around the world. And now you’ve got, again, interesting times. So maybe part of that is there starts to be a thirst for ideas being explored.”
Brooker was inspired by Serling, who had written acclaimed dramas for television before creating The Twilight Zone. “He was tackling really weighty subjects like racism and getting frustrated that he wasn’t able to explore the issues as explicitly as he wanted, because sponsors were objecting,” he says. “He realized that if he moved into allegory, he could do it.”
Brooker’s own use of allegory in Black Mirror—which will once again be on display when the show returns for a fourth season on Netflix this year—has led to a persistent “anti-technology” label. This is, after all, the show in which Jon Hamm plays a dating coach who guides a hapless young man into a tragic one-night stand via an augmented-reality device implanted in his eye. Is Brooker vilifying the very thing that has allowed Black Mirror and other shows like it to flourish?
“We use technology the same way The Twilight Zone used the supernatural or the uncanny,” he says. “Often in our stories what’s happening is the technology is amplifying human flaws. I don’t think the show is antitech any more than The Sixth Sense is anti-ghost.”