Amazing Stories review – Spielberg anthology is full of heart

Apple has rebooted the director’s hit 80s sci-fi show. It might not be on trend, but it has optimism and nostalgia at its core

Do you remember the first iteration of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories in the mid-80s? An anthology series back in the days when we just called it “TV”. Some episodes were better than others, but they were all solid, satisfying, fully braced tales that left you with a deep sense of contentment. Restorative to the spirit in both form and content – tales of derring-do, noble sacrifice and uppances come abounded – they left you ready for your tea, bed and to face another day of leg warmers, neon eyeshadow and Thatcherism.

I am delighted to report that the new incarnation, brought to you by young upstart Apple TV+, has – going by the one episode that the streaming service has released for review – deviated from this flawless formula not a jot. The first tale is an Outlander-esque time-travelling love story that’s as compact and well made as you could hope. Sam (Dylan O’Brien, who also stars in MTV’s series Teen Wolf, in case you want to experience your own little time vortex) is a lad about town currently helping his more responsible, settled brother Jake in his house restoration business. As they work on their latest wreck, a fierce storm known as a derecho hits and Sam is transported back to the house’s earliest days. There he meets and falls in love with Evelyn (Victoria Pedretti), the impoverished daughter of the family who built and live in the house, and who is about to be forced into a loveless marriage to save the family fortunes. From there, things unfold pretty much as you might expect.

Victoria Pedretti in Amazing Stories, Season 1 , “The Cellar”, on Apple TV+.
Loveless marriage … Victoria Pedretti in Amazing Stories. Photograph: Apple TV+

In its native US, the show has received much criticism for its lack of flair, innovation and complexity of character. Which seems to me to misunderstand the nature of the beast and the audience at which it’s aimed, which is surely not world-weary adult or even young adult viewers, but – just like the original – children. At teatime, ideally, if teatimes are still a thing. To them, basement portals, the bemusement of people landing in the wrong era, beloveds parted across the decades and all the hoary rest of it will be as fresh and exhilarating as it was the first time you came across it, in a Bunty comic strip, or classic time-slip children’s novel (Marianne Dreams? Charlotte Sometimes? Tom’s Midnight Garden?), or one of the Back to the Futures. What’s more, it’s full of iPhones or devoid of feminist liberation depending on the direction of travel. And if you can let yourself watch as a child again, the hour can become charming once more, even for those old enough to remember when the future Marty was going back to (“It’s your kids, Mary!”) was still to come.

It’s an unfashionable approach, of course, and maybe it does sit a little oddly with Apple’s image and positioning as a new and thrusting arrival on the streaming scene. But you don’t recruit Spielberg if you aren’t looking for a product with heart – one that has optimism instead of cynicism at its core, that seeks to entertain rather than emptily impress or dazzle. It may be a measure of Apple TV+’s confidence in itself that it is prepared to look at a property and say: “You know what? If it ain’t broke, let’s not try to fix it.” And Spielberg’s never broken.

Contributor

Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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