Amazing Stories airs weekly on Apple TV+, the streaming service. Free trials and offers are available; regular montly fee is $4.99. Visit TV.Apple.com for more/sign up.
A few non-episode related bits first.
All of the episode titles and loglines for all of the episodes are available on RottenTomatoes, which currently has the series scored at 42% Rotten (Critics Score) and 75% Approval (Audience Score); all of those ratings so far are based on the single opening episode. the majority of critics don’t so much pan the episode as state that it wasn’t quite what they expected and/or was a decent story but fell short of their personal definitions of an “Amazing Story”.
The Cellar: While restoring an old Iowa farmhouse, Sam discovers a time portal in the storm cellar that transports him to 1919.
The Heat: Tuka and Sterling are best friends and budding high school track stars who must find a way to follow their dreams after tragedy strikes.
Dynoman and the Volt: An awkward young boy and his grandfather are transformed by the arrival of a powerful novelty ring.
Signs of Life: After waking from a six-year coma, Sara struggles to remember her old life, including her troubled teenage daughter, Alia.
The Rift: When a WWII fighter plane crash-lands in front of a young widow and her stepson, they become embroiled in a secret government plot.
(Very wide tangent: that’s because Amazing Stories, with two episode hindsight, is not telling science fiction stories. It’s telling light fantasy laced with parable and allegory tales. At this point the show could just as well be named Aesop’s Fables, and if it were, I’d bet the critics would give it a higher rating because “Aesop’s Fables” would engender expectations more appropriate to what is actually being delivered.
Why? Not sure. Clues are: When the original show aired in 1985, press reported that Spielberg and company wanted to offer a show that the entire family could sit down and watch together, and I don’t think he had something like The Flintstones in mind (that show, like many animated programs, was written on at least two levels; kids show and innuendoed adult show). I think he had something more like The Wonderful World of Disney…in Living Color, in mind. (Or, to be a bit nasty, perhaps the Hallmark channel’s endless Xmas movies). Despite the fact that in a world of screens and streaming, “the family hour” no longer exists, except perhaps among Pennsylvania Dutch and Mennonite communities, and I think they’re all doing needle point and whittling, not watching TV.)
Kitsis and Horowitz are well known for the Once Upon a Time show which was fairy tale based, for Lost, which was ending disappointing (it’s almost become the icon for huge build-ups leading to a failed ending) and most decidedly parabalistic, and Tron:Legacy, which did not do so well and, while purportedly it falls within the realm of Science Fiction (what doesn’t if you stretch your definitions far enough?), was arguably more fantasy-like than sciencey like, despite taking place inside a computer world.
I’m sure they’re both smart Jewish Boys, but somewhere along the line they went the liberal arts route rather than the science major route and I’m not sure (based on the shows of theirs I’ve seen – Karen* was a huge fan of Once Upon A Time; I almost got her to write a weekly review series of the show – and the projects they’ve been attached to) that they understand that there IS a difference between fairy tale, fable, fantasy and Science Fiction.
Which leads me to speculate that they deal in fantasy elements because they can’t handle the restrictions required by Science Fiction; much easier to present unexplained time travel, magic rings, ghosts and such when the how, why and attendant logical requirements don’t need to be presented, are offered up as givens with no explanation. Science Fiction audiences are there as much for the how and why and logical puzzles/constraints as they are for the plot and characters. They ask uncomfortable questions about such things like how in the hell a fast moving thunderstorm causes time travel in a basement with an antique barometer when it doesn’t happen elsewhere; or, why in the hell, when, on average, 7,700 people die every day, there are only two ghosts evident in an entire city (especially when we learn one of them has been hanging around for years and only ever ran into one other ghost).
Such questions of logic and reason are answered, or at least dealt with, by good SF authors (literary or script), but are not necessary components of fantasy, where the ready explanation of “magic” can be plugged in when doing otherwise would require too much exposition – or would reveal the inherent illogicality of such things.
Which may be the reason for:
It looks as if the most complicated (at least in terms of production) episode is being held out as the (five) season episodes finale. The Rift – based on a comic by Richard Rayner and Don Handfield, with Art and Cover by Leno Carvalho – was the first episode in production so far as we are able to determine, but will be the last episode of the series.
This may be for multiple reasons, but probably most likely has to do with post production work. The first two episodes so far have been very light on expensive shots and effects, leading one to speculate that the final episode cost a bit more and some inexpensive episodes were needed to make up the budget. If Frankenstein’s Monster was summoned rather than created, no expensive laboratory scenes are required. Pure speculation on my part, of course. This could also be nothing but a case of leaving the best for last.
The Heat, Review (SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT)
And now at last we arrive at Season One, Episode Two. This tale is already receiving the same praise delivered as a lukewarm spray as the first episode did: not a bad story, just not quite what we’re looking for from AMAZING STORIES.
It’s receiving praise mostly for its representational aspects; the entire episode features POC actors and actresses, as well as a lesbian love story.
It no doubt will make puppies squeal “messaging! messaging!” and “when all the characters are black, it’s discriminatory”. One nice thing about puppies: they’re easy to pick up and shove in a closet.
Directed by Sylvain White (Stomp the Yard – an excellent film btw, The Losers) and written by Chinaka Hodge (Snowpiercer) (this episode was POC both in front of and behind the camera), the story centers on two late-teenaged girls, Tuka (Hailey Kilgore – The Village) and Sterling (Emyri Crutchfield – Fargo), and their dream of obtaining college athletic scholarships through their track running.
Tuka is the faster of the two, but their athletic rivalry doesn’t interfere with their bonds of friendship, as Tuka goads and teases Sterling to achieve faster times so that she can qualify for prominent matches and get seen by college scouts.
Following a mild fight over bed times, Tuka is the victim of a hit and run while pursuing Sterling in order to apologize (their bonds are too deep to “go to bed angry”) and Tuka finds herself in an empty city, apparently dead but not quite ascending to the afterlife.
The actresses have plenty of time to emote and both do so with excellent performances; Sterling in grief and anger, Tuka in denial and confusion. Sterling believes she is responsible for Tuka’s death, feeling that she started the argument that led to the chase. This prompts her to try and push the police to find the hit and run driver responsible.
Meanwhile, Tuka runs into another ghost (literally) Lee (Shane Paul McGhee – Shameless, Criminal Minds), a fading neighborhood legend, a skateboarder who was also killed, who explains that he believes they’ve stayed behind to do something for someone still living.
Tuka comes to believe that helping Sterling move on is her task to be completed before she herself can move on. Wandering the neighborhood, she is able to eaves drop and discovers who the hit and run driver is. Now the problem becomes communicating with Sterling.
Tuka accidentally discovers that she can reach Sterling while they are running; this physical activity is their deepest bond (as well as metaphor for their unrequited love) and though time worn and cliche (love conquers all), is handled well. Sterling of course believes its either her grief making her imagine things, or her grief driving her crazy, but nevertheless she indulges the voice she hears and discovers both the car and the driver and his cohort responsible for the hit and run. She confronts them and makes threats, but they’re armed and dangerous; Sterling realizes shes made a big mistake in confronting them (Tuka tried to dissuade her but, since they weren’t running, Sterling couldn’t hear), but manages to escape.
Just prior to her big match, Sterling is found by the thugs and knee-capped. Despite her injury, she is determined to run in order to fulfill her promises to her deceased friend.
Now here is where this tale, for me, went in an unexpected direction. I fully expected Tuka to discover that she could “enter” Sterling and take care of the knee problem during the race (kind of like the original series The Mission episode where a cartoonist draws landing gear for a ‘dead’ airplane), but such was not to be. Sterling’s knee collapse just before the finish line (she was well in the lead) and she is forced to crawl across the finish line in last place, dreams shattered. Enter the double twisty ending.
After the race, Sterling hobbles to a rooftop (a long time hangout for the two where they can overlook the city and the track where they race) and gives expression to her grief, confessing to the ghost of Tuka, who she can not see but knows is there, the love she feels for her; they’ve been friends, but her feelings going beyond the love of friendship to something more.
This confession allows Tuka to manifest (it’s a very touching scene) and then pass on just as they are about to share their first kiss.
And then, suddenly, we’re back in space and time to a moment just after the hit and run, Sterling kneeling over her prostrate friend, begging her to come to; which she does, and they kiss.
A short time later we join the pair as they are visiting the street shrine to Lee; Tuka has brought a new pair of shoes to the shrine (Lee had mentioned that he couldn’t find new shoes). We see Lee smiling as he passes on, his final task now completed.
My one complaint about the story is that, at least for me, the nature of the relationship between Tuka and Sterling being one that went beyond a very close friendship was not sufficiently laid out in the beginning. Maybe I missed cues more familiar to younger viewers, maybe the script was actually a bit lacking in this regard, but stronger indications of their future relationship in the beginning would have helped me.
You can’t say that this was bad streaming television; it wasn’t. It was in fact quite good streaming television. It’s just that it’s not the kind of story so many of us expect when we hear it is an AMAZING STORIES story.
This is a strange reaction, as the original series pretty much consisted of the same kind of fare, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Spielberg’s vision of Amazing, hews more towards E.T. than it does A.I. – as it always has.
I am concerned though that this series will go the way of the original – critically acclaimed by industry folks while being perceived as “not The Twilight Zone, not The Outer Limits, not Black Mirror, that we were expecting”, by the audience.
And I think that great Hollywood minds are making a mistake in this regard: Spielberg and Co., want to create a certain kind of audience for their show; they want people to return to their old 50’s/60’s television watching habits: call the kids in to dinner, then sit down around the
campfire television set and settle in for an hour’s positive entertainment before going to bed.
Despite what Poltergeist may have taught us, you can’t reach through a television and make people do things. A television show has to present something worth making people change their habits first. “Must watch” pronouncements are one thing; “must watch this way” is at least an order of magnitude beyond what critical acclaim alone can accomplish.
Spielberg may be trying to prove that the family audience still exists, but I really don’t think it does anymore – everyone is off watching what appeals directly to them on their own private screens and, if you tell them you just saw something they ought to watch, they’ll do so, probably, but not while sitting with you; they’ll watch it at lunch break or check it out during a commute.
For this show to succeed, I think it is going to have to make a decision as to which audience it wants to appeal to – an adult one (that has come to expect darker, grittier stories from its SF anthology series) or a non-adult one where it can tell Aesop’s Fables – which could be used to educate that audience so that when they grow up, something like the current Amazing Stories might appeal to them.
But as it stands, while the individual episodes are well acted, enjoy high production value and good direction, and the stories themselves are fine, they’re just not Amazing enough to get to where I think they want to go.
On the other hand: An episode of this show, intended for a “family audience”, that features a minority cast and a lesbian love story, makes some very big assumptions about the “family” being asked to watch. The subject matter may be enough to get this episode banned in some countries and will be a point of contention for certain markets in our own.
Among other things, it expects a white audience to sit still for a show that is most decidedly not The Jeffersons. It asks its audience to be comfortable not only with minority characters, but with “alternative life style” ones as well.
Maybe such families exist out there in large enough number for this show to be successful. I sure hope so.
(*Karen Davidson was the author’s wife who passed in 2017. She was the original President of the Experimenter Publishing Company, LLC.