The original Amazing Stories may not have lasted very long, or be remembered as superlative television, but it certainly had a deep roster of talent that any show would kill to sign. Created by Steven Spielberg (who came up with a large number of stories and directed multiple episodes), the fantasy anthology series attracted directors like Danny Devito, Peter Hyams, Clint Eastwood, Lesli Linka Glatter, Joe Dante, Robert Zemeckis, even Martin Scorsese. (There’s also an episode directed by Burt Reynolds, but, you know, focus on the positive.) A murderer’s row of talented writers and actors lined up to fill each episode, making for a memorably impressive cast and crew even on lesser installments. Spielberg wanted to convey the magical feeling of larger-than-life stories that families could enjoy together, and while it may have been unevenly successful in that regard (despite a good number of Emmy nominations and wins for its first season, ratings plunged, and it was canceled after two years), the show did capture the Amblin spirit of childish wonder that infuses so much of Spielberg’s output with that company.
If anything, the new iteration of the series might carry on that tradition and spirit a little too effectively. Judging by “The Cellar” (the first of five episodes streaming weekly on Fridays on AppleTV+, and the only one made available for review in advance), the show retains the look and feel of the original to such a degree that it feels oddly out of time, like it’s attempting to pick up where it left off without any acknowledgment that 30-plus years have elapsed, let alone ways TV storytelling has evolved in the interim. It’s bright, and earnest, and gently good-natured in a way that suggests TV as forgettable and old-fashioned as a glass of warm milk.
“The Cellar” is based on a familiar technique in fantasy: the unexpected time travel. The Taylor brothers, Sam (Dylan O’Brien) and Jack (Micah Stock), work together restoring old houses, though it’s more Jake’s dream than Sam’s, as the latter’s wanderlust and need to explore keeps him from putting down roots. But during a fierce derecho storm, a barometer in the basement spins abruptly, Sam gets a splitting headache, and boom: He comes back upstairs to find the year is 1919, and the former occupants of the house are a financially troubled mother (Sasha Alexander) and her daughter Evelyn (Victoria Pedretti from The Haunting Of Hill House and You season two), who the mother is planning to marry off to an uptight widower in a bid to restore their fortunes and keep their house. Sam soon convinces Evelyn he’s from the future—she suffers from wanderlust herself, but without any of the choices Sam has in the present day—and the two begin a torrid romance as they wait for another storm to create the same conditions that sent him back in the first place, so they can escape together into 2019.
The outcome is as predictable as you might guess, though with a slight twist of melancholy to remind you that Spielberg doesn’t love “just-so” stories unless they contain a little heartbreak. Sam ends up successfully freeing Evelyn from her fiancé and getting her to the future, but only at the cost of trapping himself in the past. Never fear, though: Not only does a quick trip to 2034 let him know Evelyn makes it out of her predicament, but he leaves letters for 2019 Jack and Evelyn to find after he’s gone, assuring them he’s found the peace in 1919 he could never find in the present. (“I came from a place with too many choices, and you had none,” Sam helpfully informs Evelyn, wrapping an awfully reductive bow around this whole cheesy narrative.)
Given the entire story feels like it came out of a time capsule from 1987, it shouldn’t be surprising that the execution is as outdated as the material. Jessica Sharzer’s script is twee and pat, with characters that feel more like old Disney cartoons than flesh-and-blood people. (A bit disappointing, coming from someone who’s written such juicily over-the-top material as American Horror Story and 2018's A Simple Favor.) Pedretti and O’Brien are solid, doing their best with underwritten roles, but their characters’ stories play out with all the excitement and passion of an after-school special about the importance of following your dreams.
Even the brief interludes during Sam and Evelyn’s mission feel like perfunctory rest stops en route to the conclusion. A visit to a speakeasy is meant to show that Evelyn has real talent as a singer, but it just feels rushed; minutes after learning it exists, she’s onstage soloing so that Sam can encourage her to go 100 years into the future and pursue a career in music. And when Sam first arrives back in the future by himself (a snafu with Evelyn’s possessive husband-to-be), his brother understandably doesn’t believe his tale of time-traveling romance. Yet any tension director Chris Long attempts to generate in Sam’s efforts to return to the past and save Evelyn (yes, it’s a “heroic man saves woman not strong enough to save herself” story, another way it feels a bit outdated) end up a wash, with the audience looking at its watch as often as Sam does.
Should “The Cellar” be the template for Amazing Stories to follow, it’ll have to work much harder to earn back the adjective in its title. Familiar Hokum would be more accurate, but again, this is just one of the five episodes the series is launching with. The upside of any anthology series is the possibility that the next installment can completely turn things around with a brand-new tale. Still, if this is the show’s best foot forward, it doesn’t imply much optimism. The kinds of fables that amazed us in the mid-80s—especially on TV—are no longer quite so amazing.
- I assume the poster trumpeting 2034 Evelyn’s performance at Le Poisson Bleu is the alternate-reality version of Le Poisson Rouge on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
- Even the opening credits, which retain the original theme but add a fancy new graphics sequence to it, look carbon-dated.
- Some great Fig Newtons product placement with Sam discovering the old tin.
- Sam and Evelyn truly stumble upon the most progressive speakeasy existing in rural small-town 1919 America.
- I like that they couldn’t just have the storm be a derecho—no, it’s officially a “super-derecho.”