Apple TV+’s reboot of the Spielberg-created anthology series gets off to a lackluster start.
There’s something really special about an anthology series: it allows show creators to let their imaginations run wild and try different concepts that may not work for a movie or longer series. Apple TV+’s latest series, Amazing Stories, has the fledgling streaming service trying its hand at the format, but the episode available for preview doesn’t live up to the show’s title.
It’s actually kind of odd that Apple is rebooting Amazing Stories. The 1985 original run wasn’t a hit and while reruns played on The Sci-Fi Channel before it became Syfy, it doesn’t seem to have a large cult appeal. Still, the series does boast a producing credit by Steven Spielberg and its showrunners are Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz of Lost fame, so at least Apple has some star power to bolster the lagging nostalgic appeal.
Name recognition can only get you so far, however, and the success of the show will have to rely on its 5 episode run. Apple has only supplied one episode for critics, titled “The Cellar”, which was directed by Chris Long (The Americans). The story follows carpenter Sam Taylor (Dylan O’Brien, Bumblebee), who is restoring an old house with his brother Jack (Michah Stock, The Right Stuff).
While the pair are working, a storm causes Sam to take shelter in the cellar. The sudden drop in barometric pressure caused by the Derecho magically transports him 100 years into the past, where he meets the house’s previous occupant: Evelyn (Victoria Pedretti, The Haunting of Hill House). As the pair get to know each other they begin to fall in love. Seeing how unhappy Evelyn is in the patriarchal 1910s, Sam starts watching the skies, hoping another storm will cause the barometric pressure to drop enough to send them both to the 21st century.
At first glance, Kitsis and Horowitz seem like the perfect showrunners for Amazing Stories. The pair are most famous for Lost and Once Upon A Time, two shows that dealt with the fantastical concepts that Amazing Stories was built on. However, while the duo is adept at creating shows with compelling science fiction and fantasy elements, having them helm an anthology seems a little suspect. Kitsis and Horowitz are known for shows with complex characters and intricate plots, both of which “The Cellar” lacks. It seems like this is another example of Apple having great star power, but not knowing how to use it.
One expects a time traveler story to follow certain beats: the unwitting time traveler experiences confusion upon being sent to the past followed by culture shock, once the time traveler gets acclimated to their surrounding they begin to form bonds with people as they search for a way home, and obviously their journey to the present will have some sort of twist.
It seems like this is another example of Apple having great star power, but not knowing how to use it.
“The Cellar” has all of these elements, but it doesn’t seem to know what to prioritize in its short run time. While the episode is mostly a love story between Sam and Evelyn, there is only one romantic scene between the two. Much of the plot is dedicated to Sam building a barn to pay for a barometer in between making out with Evelyn. The result is a romance that feels like it was created out of necessity, not out of genuine feelings between the characters. The plot does have a bit of a twist near the middle of the episode, but even then it mostly features Sam waiting for the weather to change.
This may not have been so bad if the characters were more interesting, but here the story also lacks. Sam is portrayed as your typical shiftless millennial: unwilling to commit to a relationship and unsure of what he wants out of life until he meets Evelyn.
Evelyn is basically a landlocked Rose DeWitt Bukater: a woman in the early 20th century who is stifled by society’s constraints and is being forced into marriage for money. She even has a mother who is obsessed with propriety and a fiance who is… well, he’s not really portrayed as abusive, seeing as he only acts like a jerk when he finds out she was cheating on him. In fact, he barely figures into the story at all. I guess we’re not supposed to like him because he’s a member of the temperance movement.
The underdeveloped characters lead to underdeveloped performances. Everyone is serviceable in their roles, and O’Brien and Pedretti have decent chemistry together. Still, none of the principal cast has much need to stretch their talents and the supporting cast’s performances often delve into the cliched.
This isn’t to say that this story couldn’t have worked. If the couple had more scenes of them developing a romance over time it would have been more engaging. As is, the pair fall in love over the course of one evening in a speakeasy where they spend more time dancing and singing than having a conversation.
The method of time travel (drops in barometric pressure) also presents a problem in the plot. While the concept is novel (indeed, the only novel idea in the story), it also strips the characters of agency. There’s no way for Sam to take action on getting back, he can only wait for the weather to change. While the characters’ lack of agency does give the episode a little pathos, it doesn’t make it more interesting to watch.
It’s hard to judge an anthology series on just one episode. For all I know, this could be the only dud in the entire series. However, with Apple TV+’s track record of mediocre content, every episode needs to be spectacular if Apple wants to convince viewers to choose their service in an oversaturated market.
Amazing Stories delivers tales of supernatural intrigue on Apple TV+ March 6th.