One of the unexpected side effects of the renaissance in series television may be the final death throes of the anthology series. The networks have never liked the anthology format, because it works against the tried-and-true tactic of hooking viewers on a series by getting them involved in an ongoing story and the fate of their favorite characters. When a new anthology series appeared in the past 30 years, it’s been because it carried the imprint of some big name from the movies—Steven Spielberg (Amazing Stories), Robert Altman (Gun), or Steve Martin (George Burns’ Comedy Week)—who was to be humored, if only for a few weeks. In the 1990s, when Showtime was in its “throw it at the wall and see if it sticks” period, the network bankrolled a crime-drama anthology, Fallen Angels, that listed Sydney Pollack as executive producer and included episodes directed by the likes of Steven Soderbergh, Alfonso Cuarón, and Tom Hanks. Showtime was also home to Rebel Highway, an exercise in ’50 pulp nostalgia that employed Robert Rodriguez, William Friedkin, Mary Lambert, and others. More recently, Showtime presented the Masters Of Horror series, best remembered for Joe Dante’s Iraq War-as-zombie-metaphor episode, “Homecoming.”
None of these series was perfect, but most of them produced a few episodes that suggested the wide-open possibilities of the anthology series. For instance, the format looks inviting to talent that doesn’t want to be tied to a show that stamps out variations on a formula until the ratings give out. Those possibilities may be less inviting now that networks are open to lavishing more creative control over series that come divided into shorter seasons. Meanwhile, the True Detective/Fargo/American Horror Story template—the miniseries as anthology series, with one full story per season, in the same genre but with a different setting and cast of characters—spells further doom for traditional anthologies. It’s already easy to imagine the rough outline of the genre’s coffin: Thanks to the enduring reputations of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, it’s a safe bet that the final anthology series will be a sci-fi show. The best news about Syfy’s new acquisition, Metal Hurlant Chronicles, is that if this thing isn’t the last show of its kind, it’ll mean that nothing can kill the genre.
A French-Belgian co-production shot in Romania with a mostly English-language cast, Metal Hurlant Chronicles takes its title, and its stories, from the legendary French comics magazine that originally ran from 1974 to 1987, providing a home to such artists as Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Philippe Druillet, and Enki Bilal. Metal Hurlant, whose title translates as “Screaming Metal,” was later Americanized into Heavy Metal, which in turn served as the basis for a 1981 animated feature film. In that movie, the different segments are held together by the narration of a green chunk of pure evil, which melts a dude and then proceeds to make a bad day even worse by telling the dead man’s traumatized daughter a bunch of old Heavy Metal stories. In Metal Hurlant Chronicles, the episodes are joined by a “screaming metal” asteroid, “the last fragment of a once-living planet” that was “blasted into dust by the madness of its inhabitants.” Passing over many different worlds, the asteroid sees nothing but unhappiness—which would be true if it could gaze through the TV screen and see the faces of the people watching this show.
The first, six-episode season of Metal Hurlant Chronicles was already broadcast in France a year-and-a-half ago; the American broadcast premiere airs the series debut, “King’s Crown,” back-to-back with the second-season episode “The Endomorphe.” Michael Jai White appears in both, and the clearest sign of progress on the filmmakers’ part is that, by the time they made “The Endomorphe,” whoever is responsible for the closing credits had learned how to spell White’s name. (He’s listed as “Michael Jay White” in “King’s Crown.”) Considering the wealth of material the adapters had to choose from, the two episodes are remarkably similar at their core. In “King’s Crown,” a bunch of sword-wielding musclemen meet in a series of public duels to decide who will succeed the dying, debauched king, who lives in a castle floating in mid-air, high above the commoners he treats as cattle. In “Endomorphe,” a few of the last survivors of a war between human beings and “alloys of metal and flesh” try to get their young charge to a site where, it’s hoped, some kind of mutating process will transform him into a champion powerful enough to save the human race. Both “stories” amount to a series of fights that gradually winnow the casts down until there’s just enough people left onscreen to take in the twist ending. Of the two episodes screened for critics, the twist endings run the gamut from predictable to unintentionally hilarious.
It’s no secret that the stories published in Metal Hurlant—especially the stories that struck a strong chord with the American readers of Heavy Metal—often amounted to adolescent male power fantasies, in which the heroic musclehead who wielded the biggest mace would celebrate his victory by ravishing as many bare-breasted lasses as could be crammed onto a page. Even today, though, it’s possible to look at much of that stuff and see why, given the richness and imagination of the artwork, it seemed fresh and exciting at the time. There’s nothing fresh or exciting about Metal Hurlant Chronicles, and certainly nothing visually fresh or exciting. The baroque look and the poses struck by the models in the opening titles seem to promise a series of dramatic adaptions of the gatefold sleeves of old Emerson, Lake & Palmer LPs; the cheesy, butt-ugly settings and visual effects are in the tradition of such eye-scarring Syfy relics as Lexx. The producers have managed to isolate everything that’s gross and charmless about European fantasy comics, as if they thought the beauty and kinetic energy of the artwork is what’s most disposable about them. Metal Hurlant Chronicles is the kind of thing that gives adolescent male power fantasies a bad name.