‘Black Mirror,’ ‘Small Axe’ and More: Breaking Down the Emmys’ Single Episode Anthology Conundrum

In 1958, CBS’ “Playhouse 90” won the first-ever Primetime Emmy award for dramatic anthology series, beating out nominees including “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Hallmark Hall of Fame” and “Studio One.”

The anthology Emmy category only lasted a year, but a variation of “outstanding dramatic program,” which mostly recognized individual episodes of anthologies such as “Hallmark Hall of Fame,” continued until the 1970s.

Now, we’re in a new age of anthologies, spurred by filmmakers eager to tell their stories in episodic fashion (yes, I know, I grit my teeth every time another director claims they’re actually making a series of movies, or one 10-hour film, rather than a TV show). This year, that includes Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe,” which film critics attempted to claim as their own when crafting their end-of-year lists but is now an Emmy contender.

But as programming trends come and go, it’s not easy for a bureaucratic body such as the Television Academy to keep up. Hence the recent confusion over what to do with entries including Netflix anthology “Black Mirror.” The streamer found a loophole that allowed several episodes of “Black Mirror” to be submitted in the TV movie competition. And it worked: The “Black Mirror” episodes “USS Callister” and “San Junipero” won the TV movie Emmy in 2018 and 2017, respectively.

That led to an Academy decree that TV movie submissions must be at least 75 minutes long. “Bandersnatch,” a stand-alone interactive “Black Mirror” entry, still won in 2019, but in 2020, “Black Mirror” was sent to the drama series race.

Meanwhile, CBS Studios found its own eligibility conundrum with the 2019 revival of “The Twilight Zone.” A pure anthology series, the original “Twilight Zone” nonetheless competed in the drama categories during its 1959 to 1964 run. That’s why the TV Academy claimed precedent and denied CBS Studios’ request for the reboot to compete in limited series.

Here’s where words get confusing: Series including “American Horror Story” and “Fargo” have also been dubbed “anthologies” and put in the limited series race because each season contains different storylines and casts. Yet, we know there are subtle through lines on “AHS” and “Fargo,” enough so that Season 8 of “American Horror Story” (“Apocalypse”) shifted to drama.

In an attempt to resolve the issue, this year the Academy combined the two and created an updated “limited or anthology series” category.

For 2021, this means “Twilight Zone” will shift to limited/anthology eligibility for its second and final season, while “Small Axe” is also most definitely now in the limited/anthology race. (“Black Mirror” did not return in time to be eligible this year, but when it does, it will have jumped from TV movie to drama to limited/anthology.)

Lumping series with multiple, single-story episodes next to shows with multiple-episode season-long arcs still might be open to confusion, but at least the new rule makes things a bit clearer for both kinds of anthologies.

And as single-episode series make a comeback (other entries in recent years have included “Modern Love,” “Little America,” “Amazing Stories” and “Room 104”), maybe “anthology” can eventually exist with its own category — and we’ll come full circle to 1958, when the genre oh-so-briefly had its moment in the Emmy sun.

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