An anthology series is a radio, television, or film series that spans through different genres, and presents a different story and a different set of characters in each episode, season, segment or short.
These usually have a different cast in each episode, but several series in the past, such as Four Star Playhouse, employed a permanent troupe of character actors who would appear in a different drama each week. Some anthology series, such as Studio One, began on radio and then expanded to television.
The word comes from Ancient Greek ἀνθολογία (anthología, “flower-gathering”), from ἀνθολογέω (anthologéō, “I gather flowers”), from ἄνθος (ánthos, “flower”) + λέγω (légō, “I gather, pick up, collect”), coined by Meleager of Gadara circa 60 BCE, originally as Στέφανος (στέφανος (stéphanos, “garland”)) to describe a collection of poetry, later retitled anthology. Anthologiai were collections of small Greek poems and epigrams, because in Greek culture the flower symbolised the finer sentiments that only poetry can express.
Many popular old-time radio programs were anthology series. On some series, such as Inner Sanctum Mysteries, the only constant was the host, who introduced and concluded each dramatic presentation. One of the earliest such programs was The Collier Hour, broadcast on the NBC Blue Network from 1927 to 1932. As radio’s first major dramatic anthology, it adapted stories and serials from Collier’s Weekly in a calculated move to increase subscriptions and compete with The Saturday Evening Post. Airing on the Wednesday prior to each week’s distribution of the magazine, the program soon moved to Sundays in order to avoid spoilers with dramatisations of stories simultaneously appearing in the magazine.
In the history of television, live anthology dramas were especially popular during the Golden Age of Television of the 1950s with series such as The United States Steel Hour and The Philco Television Playhouse.
Dick Powell came up with an idea for an anthology series, Four Star Playhouse, with a rotation of established stars every week, four stars in all. The stars would own the studio and the program, as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had done successfully with Desilu studio. Powell had intended for the program to feature himself, Charles Boyer, Joel McCrea, and Rosalind Russell. When Russell and McCrea backed out, David Niven came on board as the third star. The fourth star was initially a guest star. CBS liked the idea, and Four Star Playhouse made its debut in fall of 1952. It ran on alternate weeks only during the first season, alternating with Amos ‘n’ Andy. It was successful enough to be renewed and became a weekly programme from the second season until the end of its run in 1956. Ida Lupino was brought on board as the de facto fourth star, though unlike Powell, Boyer, and Niven, she owned no stock in the company.
American television networks would sometimes run summer anthology series which consisted of unsold television pilots. Beginning in 1971, the long-run Masterpiece Theatre drama anthology series brought British productions to American television.
In 2011, American Horror Story debuted a new type of anthology format in the US Each season, rather than each episode, is a standalone story. Several actors have appeared in the various seasons, but playing different roles – in an echo of the Four Star Playhouse format.
The success of American Horror Story has spawned other season-long anthologies such as American Crime Story and Feud.
Anthology film series are rare compared to their TV and radio counterparts. There have been several attempts within the horror genre to have a franchise with an anthology format, such as with the Halloween franchise where the third film, Halloween: Season of the Witch, was meant to be the beginning of a series of anthology horror films, but due to negative reception that plan was shelved.