“Amazing Stories” was birthed in the mid-1980s, when Steven Spielberg’s directing career was at its absolute apex, anthology series were rare, and top movie people seldom deigned lend their names to television. A whole lot has changed 35 years later, making this Apple TV+ revival feel like less of an occasion than the new streaming service might have hoped.
Spielberg’s original yielded some very good episodes as well as forgettable ones. But the main challenge here is arriving when TV (even the streaming kind) is awash in stars and anthologies, including Netflix’s edgy “Black Mirror” and CBS All Access’ latest return to “The Twilight Zone,” guided by Jordan Peele.
In that wider context, the first episode of “Amazing Stories,” which is all that Apple made available, is OK, but doesn’t merit its A-list adjective.
“Maze Runner’s” Dylan O’Brien plays a directionless millennial (insert your own joke here), Sam, who is working with his brother to remodel an old house when something, well, amazing happens: In a freakish flash, he’s transported back a century, meeting Evelyn (“You’s” Victoria Pedretti), who is living in the house, and about to be pressured into a marriage she doesn’t want.
Soon enough, Sam has his purpose, liberating Evelyn from the life to which she’s about to be sentenced. Yet doing so will mean finding a way to use that freak storm to transport them back to his own time, a process that understandably proves a little complicated, since it’s not entirely clear how the whole thing worked in the first place.
Titled “The Cellar,” the episode certainly has a strong romantic undercurrent – the movie “Somewhere in Time” comes to mind – courtesy of writer Jessica Sharzer and directed Chris Long. It is, however, a fairly conventional trip into the vaguely supernatural with a time-travel riff, one of the most durable hooks in the genre.
As noted, one attraction associated with anthologies is the possibility of getting marquee names to parachute in for an episode, but with “Amazing Stories,” the real star has been and always will be Spielberg, who has been extremely active in TV as a producer through the intervening years.
When Apple TV+ launched, it was understandably eager to announce the major talent that would be contributing to the service – as a source of validation to Hollywood and the world at large – Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey among them. (Other episodes will feature the late Robert Forster, Josh Holloway, Kerry Bishe and Jacob Lattimore.)
Seen that way, “Amazing Stories” represents a fairly low-impact, almost shorthand way to signal Spielberg’s endorsement of the enterprise, even if the show – appropriately, given the premiere’s theme – feels like a throwback to an earlier, simpler time.
“Amazing Stories” premieres March 6 on Apple TV+.