The announcement that Apple TV+ would be bringing back the beloved Amazing Stories was met with positive response across the board. For many, the joy of another genre-themed anthology show was enough to get excited, but for some of us the excitement was more specifically tied to memories of the Steven Spielberg-produced original that ran from 1985 to 1987. Spielberg’s name brought respectable budgets and big names, but the show also found its niche as something of a Twilight Zone without the edge — that’s not a knock as instead it just means the show was home to stories about wonder, weirdness, and an eternal optimism. Rather than end with a twist of the knife, classic episodes like “Mummy Daddy” and “The Mission” fill the screen with hope and heart in equal measure.
The question, in a world filled with anthology shows that lean bleak and brutal like Black Mirror or overtly political like the Twilight Zone reboot, became whether or not this new Amazing Stories — once again produced by Spielberg — would retain the original’s boundless love and hope for humanity. The question, for now at least, is answered with the reboot’s first episode, “The Cellar,” which kicks off with John Williams’ unforgettable title theme set to new visuals.
Jacob (Micah Stock) and Sam (Dylan O’Brien) are brothers who flip houses for a living. It’s Jacob’s company, unsurprisingly, as he’s also married with a husband and new daughter showing him to be a man with a plan for his future. Sam is younger and a bit more of a wildcard. He can’t — or won’t — commit to officially joining Jacob’s company, he frequents dating apps as he doesn’t make the time to build traditional relationships, and he’s more than a little unmoored in life. Their latest job sees them working to restore an old farmhouse, and shortly after Sam finds a hidden box with trinkets and a black & white photograph of a young woman, a siren sounds indicating a storm approaching. A shift in the air pressure, a piercing headache, and Sam suddenly finds himself one hundred years in the past. He meets Evelyn (Victoria Pedretti), the young woman from the photo, and as he searches for a way back to the future over the coming days and weeks Sam also finds himself falling in love. She’s heading into an arranged marriage with a man who disapproves of her interest in music and values her more as arm candy than an equal. As his only opportunity to return home approaches, Sam realizes a life-altering decision awaits him.
Writer Jessica Sharzer and director Chris Long tell a romantic tale with “The Cellar” that doesn’t quite go the direction you’re expecting. Well, it does for a little while, but a late shift leaves you appreciating some of the story’s bigger themes that succeed without undercutting the more obvious ideas. It’s a nice, little tale that acknowledges simple feelings like love and kindness both for ourselves and others, but is that sweetness enough for viewers looking to fill nearly an hour of their day in today’s world?
That running time — this first episode clocks in at just over fifty minutes — is the second hurdle as the story’s simple warmth lacks big moments, flashy visuals, or emotionally heavy gut punches. It never drags, necessarily, but some of its second-act plot points seem slightly drawn out for the sake of filling time. The pacing doesn’t suffer for it, but there’s a definite flat feel with some of the expected villainy from Evelyn’s betrothed. It’s mitigated in large part by the romance between Sam and Evelyn, though, as their performances feel alive even when the story slows. Small moments between O’Brien (The Maze Runner, 2014) and Pedretti (The Haunting of Hill House, 2018) shine on their faces and in their banter, and it adds just enough weight to what’s coming next in the story.
As mentioned, what comes next in the tale refocuses things in an interesting way, and while it’s bound to leave some viewers with unanswered questions it feels a part of the whole. Sharzer’s script is never really all that interested in explaining things, necessarily, meaning we’re meant to take events at face value without detailed breakdowns of the hows and whys. Some elements feel a bit glossed over as a result, but the bigger picture remains satisfying.
Judging by this first episode, it’s clear that Spielberg and friends are interested in maintaining the heart and soul of what made Amazing Stories‘ initial run so memorable for so many. Its rebirth seems to once again prioritize family-friendly tales blending warmth, humor, and love with whatever genre beats the story dictates. Ideally, though, future episodes from this new season will find stories with a bit more pep in their step or go deeper with suspense, action, or humor. “The Cellar” is an enjoyable, heartwarming watch, but no one will be talking about thirty-five years from now.