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the rise and fall of the anthology series on american television

Historically American television drama has been produced in four main forms: the episodic series, the serial, the mini-series and the anthology series.

Of these perhaps only the mini-series could be considered unequivocally a child of television although the form, a hybrid of the theatrical feature and the serial, has been compared with that of the nineteenth century realist novel. Mini-series gained a hold on the small screen in the late seventies with the phenomenal success of Roots.

The genre-based episodic series, with continuity of characters and setting, became dominant during the fifties as live broadcast gave way to industrialised production of programs on film resulting in the shift of network television's centre of gravity from New York to Hollywood.

Before television, the serial held sway in radio primarily for daytime and juvenile audiences. Daytime serials were first a failure on television but by the mid-sixties the 15 minute episode on radio had been successfully expanded into a television half-hour [1]. In the eighties the daytime soap opera invaded prime time TV. The success of the soaps also introduced a continuing story element, previously missing from the episodic series, in, for example Hill Street Blues and Cheers.top

The early dominance of the anthology series, such as Philco TV Playhouse and General Electric Theatre, was a consequence of the live transmission of drama which prevailed in television from the mid-forties to the mid-fifties. The constraints of live production seemed to make the play the natural form of television fiction, production being studio-bound with a minimum of sets in what amounted to a style of sparseness, the concentration being on emotions in close-up. While the actors were drawn from the theatre (the New York Actors' Studio was influential) the real antecedent was radio theatre. As in radio, anthology series for television were very much writer dominated. In these early days the craft of constructing story and character in the form of a single play was considerably more demanding than the later `writing by numbers' required for the episodic series. In addition to original teleplays and plays written for the live theatre, short stories often provided the source for teleplays. The emphasis was on diversity--actors were chosen to fit the play, not vice versa. There was no continuity of mood, character, plot, style or locale. Other than length, the only specification in the early days of television was that the play was producible in a studio.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents was the last really successful anthology series with the wider viewing public but, as I will argue, it was also a special case. Between 1955 and 1962 there were 266 episodes of the series on American television spread over seven seasons with a further 93 episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour over three seasons between 1962 and 1965. Four times the series was in the top 25 programs as measured by the Neilsen surveys. AHP is, to date, the last of the five anthology series to have made it into the one hundred most popular series since the inception of the Neilsen ratings in 1950. For the 1950-88 period AHP was ranked 93rd behind Fireside Theatre (1949-63) at 36th, General Electric Theatre (1953-62) at 42nd, Philco TV Playhouse (1948-55) at 70th, and Ford Theatre (1949-57) at 79th [2]. While AHP was by no means the last such series, those which tried to repeat its success like Suspicion (1957-8), Thriller (1960-2), The Twilight Zone (1963-5) and The Outer Limits (1963-5) never achieved much more than cult status. The Hitchcock series thus seems to mark the end of a phase of network television at the point where the anthology series merged with the episodic series.top

Although his imprimatur was absolutely central to its success, Hitchcock neither initiated the series nor did he involve himself a great deal in its production. The idea apparently came from the president of MCA, Lew Wasserman, while production was the responsibility of longtime associates, Joan Harrison and Norman Lloyd (who played the saboteur in Hitchcock's 1942 feature Saboteur). Of the 372 teleplays produced over ten years by Hitchcock's company, Shamley Productions, Hitchcock directed only twenty from scripts handpicked for him by Harrison who was familiar with his thematic interests. His main on-going involvement was in script supervision which amounted to the selection of forty scripts for each season from the hundred or so submitted to him, a process upon which McCarty and Kelleher have commented.

In addition to having been published, the kinds of stories Hitchcock and Harrison--and later [Gordon] Hessler and Lloyd--preferred were ones about ordinary people (as opposed to the underworld, though even this was not taboo) who get involved in an extraordinary situation (like murder) that climaxes either in an ironic manner or with a unique surprise twist. Although the former was clearly an established Hitchcockian motif, evident in virtually all of the director's feature films, the latter was not. Only Vertigo and Psycho conclude in a manner that is boldly reminiscent of the television series. [3]

Kapsis has noted that Hitchcock often highlighted the differences between the TV series and his movies [4]. However the tone of the whole series, set in Hitchcock's prologues and epilogues, was also that of certain Hitchcock movies, notably his very personal macabre comedy The Trouble with Harry (1955). top

The role of the host was an integral part of anthology series and often the main unifying factor. The unique feature of AHP was the way Hitchcock's hosting of the series provided a continuity akin to that of characterisation in the episodic series. Although we know that Hitchcock delegated much of the responsibility for the production to his associates and was not creatively involved in most of the individual episodes, his psychological presence was very strong. Norman Lloyd has acknowledged that `the whole style of the series was totally influenced by [Hitchcock's] style' [5]. In emulating his style--the suspense, irony and quirky humour--even at times to the calling of the shots on the set as it was thought Hitchcock might call them his collaborators were, in a sense, being `more Hitchcock than Hitch himself.' The overriding impression given by the series is that of Hitchcock the creator, the dominant force behind the show, an impression which both the host and his collaborators cultivated. On the subject of Hitchcock as host, Kapsis has written that: Hitchcock's weekly presence on the show transcended that of mere host, meaning that he also provided the series with the continuity of an episodic series. Through his intervention at the end of each program, Hitchcock saw to it that law and order were restored [6].

The success of AHP seemed to inject new life into the anthology series but, as has been noted above, series which attempted to build on the success of AHP, failed to achieve much more than cult status. What now seems clear in retrospect is that the unifying presence of Hitchcock as a `character' in the series, a role which its successors were unable to emulate, was integral to the success of AHP. The prologue repeated before each episode of The Outer Limits was little more than an imaginative gimmick followed by conventional use of voice-over narration. The introductions to episodes of The Twilight Zone by Rod Serling, its host and creator, amount to populist philosophising. Although his creative input into The Twilight Zone was much greater than Hitchcock's into AHP, on the screen as host Serling seems marginal when compared with the presence of Hitchcock. An entertainer and television personality, his weekly appearances in the prologue of AHP established Hitchcock `as the creative and almost supernatural force behind the program' while `the epilogues seem inseparable from the teleplays' [7]. #top

As one of the first television series to be produced by a major Hollywood studio AHP marked the ending of the film capital's boycott of the small screen. In 1955 the injection of more resources seemed to point the way to a possible reinvigoration of the anthology series. At that time there were no less than thirteen `playhouse' programs, sponsored by major corporations, on American television. But the writing was already on the wall. While sponsors were initially attracted to the prestige associated with the intimations of high art in television playhouse productions, as Buxton points out, the problem-laden world of psychological drama seemed often at odds with the ephemeral optimism of the sponsors' messages [8]. Furthermore, sponsors increasingly vetted scripts for controversial material and especially for anything that they saw as placing their products in a negative light. A formulaic succession of appealing characters presented with glossy production values in more or less predictable settings rested more easily with the messages. The so-called golden age of television, in which drama was dominated by the (live) play, yielded to the attractions of the formula inherent in episodic television series which progressively took the place of the `B' feature on the film studios' production schedules. Inferences for the future of anthology series drawn from the success of AHP proved to be illusory. Alfred Hitchcock was, after all, as much a `character' and `star' as James Arness, Lucille Ball or Lorne Greene.

alfred hitchcock presents

NB Episodes are listed in order in which they were first broadcast.top

First Season 1925-26

  • Episode Title: Back for Christmas
    Director: Alfred Hitchcock
    Teleplay: Francis Cockrell
    Original Story: John Collier
    Actors: John Williams
  • Episode Title: Momentum
    Director: Robert Stevens
    Teleplay: Francis Cockrell
    Original Story: Francis Cockrell
    Actors: Joanne Woodward top

Second Season 1956-57

  • Episode Title: Wet Saturday
    Director: Alfred Hitchcock
    Teleplay: Marian Cockrell
    Original Story: John Collier
    Actors: Sir Cedric Hardwicke
  • Episode Title: Fog Closing In
    Director: Herschel Daugherty
    Teleplay: James P. Cavanagh
    Original Story: Martin Brooke
    Actors: Phyllis Thaxter
  • Episode Title: The Rose Garden
    Director: Francis Cockrell
    Teleplay: Marian Cockrell
    Original Story: Vincent Fotre
    Actors: John Williams
  • Episode Title: Malice Domestic
    Director: John M. Lucas
    Teleplay: Victor Wolfson
    Original Story: Philip MacDonald
    Actors: Ralph Meeker, Phyllis Thaxter top

Third Season 1957-8

  • Episode Title: The Perfect Crime
    Director: Alfred Hitchcock
    Teleplay: Stirling Silliphant
    Original Story: Ben Ray Redman
    Actors: Vincent Price
  • Episode Title: Miss Paisley's Cat
    Director: Justus Addiss
    Teleplay: Marian Cockrell
    Original Story: Roy Vickers
    Actors: Dorothy Stickney top

Fourth Season 1958-9

  • Episode Title: Out There, Darkness
    Director: Paul Henreid
    Teleplay: Bernard C. Schoenfeld
    Original Story: William O'Farrell
    Actors: Bette Davis
  • Episode Title: Total Loss
    Director: Don Taylor
    Teleplay: J. E. Selby
    Original Story: J. E. Selby
    Actors: Ralph Meeker, Nancy Oates
  • Episode Title: Banquo's Chair
    Director: Alfred Hitchcock
    Teleplay: Francis Cockrell
    Original Story: Rupert Croft-Cooke
    Actors: John Williams, Kenneth Haigh top

Fifth Season 1959-60

  • Episode Title: Arthur
    Director: Alfred Hitchcock
    Teleplay: James P. Cavanagh
    Original Story: Arthur Williams
    Actors: Laurence Harvey, Hazel Court
  • Episode Title: Escape to Sonoita
    Director: Stuart Rosenberg
    Teleplay: James H. Howard, Bill S. Ballinger
    Original Story: James H. Howard, Bill S. Ballinger
    Actors: Burt Reynolds top

Sixth Season 1960-61

  • Episode Title: Mrs Bixby and the Colonel's Coat
    Director: Alfred Hitchcock
    Original Story: Roald Dahl
    Actors: Audrey Meadows
  • Episode Title: Very Moral Theft
    Director: Norman Lloyd
    Teleplay: Allan Gordon
    Original Story: Jack Dillon
    Actors: Walter Matthau, Betty Field
  • Episode Title: The Greatest Monster of Them All
    Director: Robert Stevens
    Teleplay: Robert Bloch
    Original Story: Bryce Walton
    Actors: Richard Hale
  • Episode Title: The Landlady
    Director: Paul Henreid
    Teleplay: Robert Bloch
    Original Story: Roald Dahl
    Actors: Dean Stockwell
  • Episode Title: The Throwback
    Director: John Brahm
    Teleplay: Henry Slesar
    Original Story: Henry Slesar
    Actors: Scott Marlowe
  • Episode Title: Deathmate
    Director: Alan Crosland, Jr.
    Teleplay: Bill S. Ballinger
    Original Story: James Causey
    Actors: Lee Phillips, Gia Scala
  • Episode Title: The Pearl Necklace
    Director: Don Weis
    Teleplay: Peggy & Lou Shaw
    Original Story: Peggy & Lou Shaw
    Actors: Hazel Court top

Seventh Season 1961-2

  • Episode Title: Cop for a Day
    Director: Paul Henreid
    Teleplay: Henry Slesar
    Original Story: Henry Slesar
    Actors: Walter Matthau
  • Episode Title: Beta Delta Gamma
    Director: Alan Crosland, Jr.
    Teleplay: Calvin Clements
    Original Story: Calvin Clements
    Actors: Duke Howard
  • Episode Title: I, Spy
    Director: Norman Lloyd
    Teleplay: John Collier
    Original Story: John Mortimer
    Actors: Cecil Parker
  • Episode Title: The Case of M. J. H.
    Director: Alan Crosland, Jr.
    Teleplay: Henry Slesar
    Original Story: Henry Slesar
    Actors: Barbara Baxley
  • Episode Title: The Big Score
    Director: Boris Sagal
    Teleplay: Bryce Walton
    Original Story: Sam Merwin, Jr.
    Actors: Evans Evans
  • Episode Title: The Woman Who Wanted to Live
    Director: Alan Crosland, Jr.
    Teleplay: Bryce Walton
    Original Story: Bryce Walton
    Actors: Lola Albright, Charles Bronson
  • Episode Title: Where Beauty Lies
    Director: Robert Florey
    Teleplay: James P. Cavanagh
    Original Story: Henry Farrell
    Actors: Cloris Leachman top

The Alfred Hitchcock Hour 1962-65

  • Episode Title: Death of a Cop (1963)
    Director: Joseph Newman
    Teleplay: Leigh Brackett
    Original Story: Douglas Warren
    Actors: Victor Jory, Lawrence Tierney top

bibliography

  • Barnouw, Erik. Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.
  • Brooks, Tim and Marsh, Earle. The Complete Directory of Prime Time Network TV Shows, 1946-Present. 4th ed. New York: Ballantyne Books, 1988.
  • Buxton, David. From the Avengers to Miami Vice: Form and Ideology in Television Series. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990.
  • Kapsis, Robert E. Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.
  • McCarty, John and Kelleher, Brian. Alfred Hitchcock Presents. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985.top

footnotes


[1] Erik Barnouw, Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975, p. 350.[Back to text]

[2] Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, The Complete Directory of Prime Time Network TV shows, 1946-Present. 4th edition. New York: Ballantyne Books, 1988, pp. 979-80.[Back to text]

[3] John McCarty and Brian Kelleher, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985, p. 17.[Back to text]

[4] Robert E. Kapsis, Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992, p. 37. [Back to text]

[5] Kapsis, p. 41.[Back to text]

[6] Kapsis, p. 33.[Back to text]

[7] Kapsis, pp. 31-2.[Back to text]

[8] David Buxton, From the Avengers to Miami Vice: Form and Ideology in Television Series. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992, p. 22.[Back to text]

 
 
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