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Guillermo del Toro’s “Cabinet of Curiosities” brings back the underrated anthology series host trope that helps celebrate the nature of storytelling.

When it comes to the versatile nature of anthology shows, one of the biggest selling points of the genre is that every episode tells a completely original story. It’s easy to get lost in the stories, but the best anthology shows understand that the act of storytelling itself is just as important to the experience. Stories can be found anywhere, but the process of being a storyteller is akin to being human. Man has been telling stories since its very existence and without storytellers, society would be left in arrested development. Granted, every piece of television technically tells a story, but it’s anthology shows that have the rare tradition of engaging with the audience on a personal level as if they’re trading stories around a campfire, in a bar, or lost in a void.

Anthology series have never gone out of fashion and they’re having a particular Renaissance at the moment, but what’s so special about Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities – now streaming in full on Netflix – is that it revives the lost anthology series trope of a host who introduces, or bookends, each story. To some, this device may seem silly or antiquated, but it’s a crucial and underestimated element for how an anthology series can succeed.

Anthology genre fare can explore such exaggerated material that a popular approach taken with a host figure is that it’s some macabre creation instead of a standard celebrity storyteller. The most popular example of this is Tales From the Crypt’s Crypt Keeper, who eventually transcends his source material and becomes a celebrity in his own right. Tales From the Crypt’s short-lived science fiction-based spin-off, Perversions of Science, was not what most people would consider a success. However, the series still made its mark through its sexed-up and teched-out robotic host, Chrome. She’s no Crypt Keeper (but honestly, who among us is?), but there’s still such endless personality in this character that makes it so much easier to return to Perversions of Science even when an episode is a dud. Creeped Out, a British horror anthology series that’s available on Netflix and designed to skew towards younger audiences, turns its masked host, “The Curious,” into an abnormal enigma. It’s almost the reverse of the approach that’s taken with the Crypt Keeper where the absence of a personality turns this host into a mystery that the audience yearns to unravel. 

The hosts of these anthology series are typically disconnected from the stories in which they regale the audience with, but this isn’t always the case. The Tales From the Crypt episode, “Lower Berth,” which centers on a family of sideshow carnival attractions, turns out to be an origin story for the Crypt Keeper. It’s a detail that’s completely unnecessary and “Lower Berth” succeeds without this final “twist,” but it’s probably the best thing about the episode since the audience has inherently developed a natural relationship with the series’ host. “Lower Berth” works as well as it does because it arrives in season two, rather than during the show’s freshman year when the audience’s shorthand with the Crypt Keeper isn’t as pronounced. To go one step further with this idea, “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” the pilot episode of Freddy’s Nightmares–an anthology series that uses slasher icon Freddy Krueger as its host–also becomes a look into an untold chapter in Freddy Krueger’s life. These unexpected stories don’t become the lynchpins of their respective series, but they are some of the most popular episodes. 

The other major approach that can be taken with an anthology series’ host, which is the route that Cabinet of Curiosities takes with Guillermo del Toro, is that it’s an authority figure that the audience can trust. Alfred Hitchcock. Rod Serling. Jordan Peele. Forest Whitaker. There were even select episodes of Goosebumps that used R.L. Stine as a master of ceremonies who introduces his own fiction. In John Carpenter’s Body Bags (which was originally created as a TV series, not an anthology film), it’s John Carpenter himself who plays the Crypt Keeper-like Coroner character. What’s important here is that these hosts aren’t just respected voices in their fields, but they’re storytellers at heart. This isn’t just a narrator who spouts off voice over to open and close a spooky story. The strongest anthology series use their hosts as legitimate personalities who thrive upon the unpredictable, limitless nature of fiction, which is the perfect distillation of Guillermo del Toro. 

The melding between host and narrative is a clever way to marry form with storytelling that makes more sense for some anthology series than it does for others. That being said, it’s honestly a little surprising that The Twilight Zone never pursued an episode that posits that Rod Serling’s role as cryptic host is actually some eternal punishment that he’s forced to engage in. The most interesting episode of 2019’s Twilight Zone revival, “Blurryman,” specifically plays around with the series’ opening narration trope and finds a way to turn Rod Serling into its Cryptid-esque boogeyman. It’s an episode that draws inspiration from the very nature of its host and the reputation that accompanies this figure. In a way, it combines both host extremes with a character that’s both a prestige figure of authority as well as a creepy creature.

Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities is a comforting return to classic anthology storytelling that reminds audiences of the value of a host. This doesn’t mean that it’s a necessary ingredient for a show to work. Programs like American Horror Stories, Tales From the Darkside, Masters of Horror, and Nightmares & Dreamscapes would arguably benefit from a striking host figure that would give them an extra element of cache. Furthermore, Black Mirror is an anthology series that jumps right into its stories without any preamble, but some of the series’ more stylized installments like “White Christmas” and “Black Museum” experiment with the host format in a manner that doesn’t just work, but yields some exceptional twists. Black Mirror clearly works fine without a host that needs to spell things out for its audience, but these two episodes are at least deeply indicative of how the show could work with this structure. 

Alternatively, Inside No. 9 is top-tier anthology television that would actively be worse if it was forced to adhere to the host construct. In the end, it comes down to the audience’s desire to be told a compelling story. That’s a lot easier when there’s a storyteller front and center who not only thrives on the medium, but the act of presenting this tale to the audience. Anthology series have never been more prevalent on television, but hopefully Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities will reignite the genre’s relationship with dedicated hosts and the act of storytelling. 

“Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities” is currently streaming on Netflix

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