Unlike Amazing Stories Executive Producer Steven Spielberg, I didn't read the Amazing Stories magazine. I didn't watch the 1985 TV adaptation with two episodes directed by him. I barely remember the original The Twilight Zone. My first clear reference of an anthology series with a science fiction twist and completely independent episodes was the highly sophisticated and mostly perturbing Black Mirror.
The Cellar, the episode of Amazing Stories available for review that will debut on Apple TV Plus March 6, is no Black Mirror.
Amazing Stories was developed by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, creators of the ABC show Once Upon a Time. While it's hard to gauge the entire series having seen just one of its five episodes, judging by The Cellar, Amazing Stories seems to share a few ingredients with it. It feels like the kind of wholesome fare more common in network TV — sex happens off-screen, language is clean, and there are clear good characters and villains. The Cellar also has an almost fairy tale quality to it.
With only 52 minutes of running time, The Cellar feels like a TV movie condensed to the length of a TV episode. Its characters are painted in wide brush strokes. We learn Sam (Dylan O'Brien) is a 2019 "cliched millennial" prone to using a dating app and hooking up with strangers. His brother Jacob (Micah Stock) describes him that way in case viewers didn't reach the same conclusion observing Sam's behavior.
Nothing in The Cellar is subtle. Everything is explained with the kind of audiovisual techniques I associate with network dramas and shows conceived before the golden age of TV.
"William will not understand your perverse taste in music," Mrs. Porter (Sasha Alexander) tells her music-loving daughter, Evelyn (Victoria Pedretti), about the well-heeled fiancé she's found for her. With that single line, you know William is bad news. There's not much space or time for the nuances of flawed characters in an episode that works with clear contrasts. The Cellar needs to tell a tale in a limited amount of time.
Bear in mind the episode also has to also cram in exposition regarding the science fiction elements. I won't go into details, but by the end of The Cellar you'll have your doubts about the logic in its somewhat elaborate mythology. That doesn't necessarily mean you won't enjoy the completely fantastical premise.
From its title sequence, with a theme song composed by frequent Spielberg collaborator John Williams for the original show, Amazing Stories aims to transport the viewer to an era of nostalgia reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Yet The Cellar is set in a 2019 with so much cell phone usage you wonder if Apple should have taken it a bit easier with the plus-sized iPhone product placement.
I'm intrigued to see the premises of the other episodes. With anthology series, you can absolutely dislike one story, or its tone, but fall in love with the next.
Right now, the show lacks the narrative complexity we've gotten used to with recent science fiction series like Westworld, Sense8, Orphan Black or Stranger Things. That being said, I didn't expect the formulaic case-of-the-week The Mandalorian would satisfy 2019 viewers. I was sure it wouldn't find a space in the highly competitive world of peak TV, and I was wrong.
It could be that people are wanting for a show that resembles more what TV used to be: a good way to unplug your brain and escape for an hour. In other words, if you want some nostalgic TV to enjoy with the whole family, Amazing Stories could be what you are looking for. If you want your science fiction to make you think obsessively and ponder about the terrors of technology, you might prefer to wait until the next season of Black Mirror.
Disclosure: Patricia Puentes' husband works for Health at Apple.