Video: Out of the Series Straitjacket

Anthology shows bring style and imagination to prime time

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In TV, as in presidential primary campaigns, high expectations can often be dangerous. The expectations have seldom been higher than last September, when the networks prepared to unveil four new weekly anthology series. The shows boasted big-name directors and writers (headed by Hollywood's ubiquitous mogul Steven Spielberg), harked back to fondly remembered series from TV's past, and promised liberation from the straitjacket of recurring characters and continuing story lines. If the anthology shows worked, it seemed, a programming revolution might be in the offing.

And so it was that disappointment almost inevitably swept the land. When Spielberg's Amazing Stories debuted on NBC, the reaction from critics and viewers was a widespread yawn. The show's ratings, along with those of NBC's Alfred Hitchcock Presents and CBS's The Twilight Zone, settled into the lackluster middle of the Nielsen pack. A fourth anthology entry, George Burns Comedy Week, was canceled. Some revolution.

Well, expectations are past, reality has set in, and it is time to give the anthologies a modest round of applause. Though hardly big hits, the three surviving fantasy-suspense shows have done well enough to win renewals at least to the end of the season. (NBC has already committed to two full seasons of Amazing Stories.) Moreover, as network executives point out, the shows' audiences are weighted heavily with young, urban, upscale viewers, the sort that advertisers most prize.

More important, the anthology shows have largely delivered on their creative promise: they have brought imagination, excitement and stylistic diversity to weekly series fare. The clinkers may outnumber the winners by a wide margin, but the high points--many from feature directors taking an unaccustomed fling at TV--have been worth waiting for. John Landis, director of the dismal Christmas release Spies Like Us, managed to pack far more laughs into his wacky episode of George Burns Comedy Week, about a small town that tries to win federal disaster aid by faking an earthquake. Joe Dante's best work of the year was not his feature flop Explorers but a spooky segment for The Twilight Zone called The Shadow Man, about a boy who discovers a sinister phantom living under his bed.

The Twilight Zone has, in general, been the least satisfying of the anthologies. Most of the segments are flimsy and half-baked (three stories are sometimes crowded into the hour) or weighted down by gloomy moralizing, one of the more lamentable legacies of Rod Serling's classic program. But there have been surprises. Among them was a striking episode from Director John Milius (Red Dawn), in which a man murders his mistress's husband while on a hunting trip, then relives the crime with the roles reversed. Milius bathed his key scenes in orange light and an otherworldly fog, giving the routine tale a haunting resonance.

Although Alfred Hitchcock Presents has settled for simply remaking old episodes from its earlier incarnation, it seems far fresher and more vital than The Twilight Zone. No supernatural morality plays here; just some deft storytelling and a refreshingly sardonic view of human nature. Hitchcock characters are greedy, vengeful and nasty (Martin Sheen, for instance, as a dissolute, over-the-hill actor who kills a young rival), and good people as well as bad are subject to the capriciousness of fate.

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