There’s almost no way to talk about “Amazing Stories” without invoking “The Twilight Zone.” Both shows, with initial seasons released less than a year apart, are reworkings of TV anthologies of decades past, executive produced by household name filmmakers, and exist as a gambit to cement another corner of a potential subscriber base for a streaming service.
Both also launched with a single entry, intended to kickstart a place in the cultural consciousness. For “Amazing Stories,” that opening is “The Cellar,” a romantic time travel story designed to ease viewers into the show rather than take them to uncharted territory.
“The Cellar” cribs generously from time-travel rom-com premises — most recognizably the 1980 Jane Seymour-Christopher Reeve gem “Somewhere in Time” — perhaps for the sake of simplicity. Boy joins his brother on a fixer-upper house-flipping gig. Boy gets trapped in a storm cellar during a once-in-three-generations storm. Boy hurtles back a century. Boy meets girl (he once saw in a photograph). Classic story.
Dylan O’Brien and Victoria Pedretti star as Sam and Evelyn, the era-scrambled pair trying to make sense of how they came into each other’s lives. “A Simple Favor” writer Jessica Sharzer and director Chris Long follow a template that does away with nearly all the nuance that a time-travel romance could incorporate.
That extends to fashioning the 1919 that Sam ends up traveling to, a town with all necessary and expected period signifiers in place. There are superficial discussions of rigid gender roles, posters touting the institution of Prohibition, jokes centered on the limitations of past technology, and a bustling speakeasy to boot. Because this town does more light evoking of the early early 20th century than actually immersing a stranger within its ranks, most of the burden of generating wonder within the episode seems put squarely on O’Brien’s shoulders. And Sam gets accustomed to his new environment pretty quickly.
It’s part of an overall sense of comfort that undercuts most of the episode. Where “The Twilight Zone” 2019 — for all its social relevancy misfires — did succeed was drenching each of its episodes in the kind of anxiety that felt required for a modern-day update. Some that tension felt grafted on to certain episodes in increasingly clumsy ways while other installments built that more organically. The result was something that had all the trappings of nailbiting sci-fi even if the tales themselves never filled in the necessary gaps.
On Apple TV+, “Amazing Stories” seems to be striving for something with the same level of affect, only at a different pitch. Not that time travel stories are mandated by law to engage with the psychological and moral ripples of being granted a window into life 100 years in the past, but “The Cellar” seems content to skirt any sense of real threat or danger. This is an episode designed to draw in the kind of audience that’s accustomed to a particular strain of conflict-light network drama and holiday-themed programming.
At just over 50 minutes, “The Cellar” is trapped in a bizarre runtime grey area. It’s padded out enough to start constructing some sense of this town beyond the confines of the property line Yet outside of one or two sentence-length childhood anecdotes, a proficiency in woodworking, and an enjoyment of the company of a woman with a lovely singing voice, Sam is an empty vehicle for a story that’s ticking off the decades-hopping boxes as it goes.
Even still, that love story, telegraphed as it is, still lets the episode find what sweet spot it does have. The way Sam and Evelyn’s romance crests— and what the episode does with it after — is one of the few points that feel close to surprising choices. In turn, those mostly emphasize the ways the rest of the episode’s runtime feels underutilized.
Fluffy and safe, it’s not the strongest endorsement of what the rest of the series might bring. (At the time of this writing, no additional episodes were made available to press.) If that’s the overall plan for “Amazing Stories” going forward, to lull audiences into a sense of familiarity before one final zig, it’s a curious model. Let’s see if future installments follow suit.
New episodes of “Amazing Stories” will be available Fridays on Apple TV+.