‘Amazing Stories’ Delivers a Familiar Cocktail of Time Travel and Melodramatic Romance 

Apple TV continues expanding its roster with “Amazing Stories” a show that feels more like a throwback than an attempt at innovation. Produced by Steven Spielberg, it’s the streaming service’s version of a classic ’80s or ’90s anthology series where cynicism is left completely at the door. The heart is there, but what was also left behind includes a more coherent story. In its inaugural episode that tired old trick of time travel is pulled out of the closet, complete with a bit of forbidden romance. 

The episode, titled “The Cellar,” begins in 2019 where Sam (Dylan O’Brien) begins to work on restoring an old house with his older brother. While exploring the house’s cellar (hence the name), Sam uncovers a barometer. Then, a major storm that arrives every three generations hits and somehow the barometer in conjunction with all the rain and lightning sets off some sort of time portal that sends Sam back into 1919. Now stuck a century in the past, Sam has to figure out how to return to his own timeline. But as fate would have it, he meets a beautiful young woman named Evelyn (Victoria Pedretti ). It turns out that Evelyn has been betrothed to some local rich man who she of course does not love. In a matter of minutes, Sam falls in love with Evelyn and is determined to bring her back to the 21st century.

In classic anthology fashion, “Amazing Stories” will offer a new yarn every week. Since Apple TV has only made the season premiere available for review, we can only draw conclusions on this specific offering. The show itself opens in classic Spielberg fashion with soaring music and family friendly imagery. Under the direction of Chris Long (Spielberg does not direct any of the stories himself) the episode itself offers nothing particularly risky or bold, it’s a simple time travel tale shot with minimal production values and a rather stale cinematographic look. Sets look just like sets, especially the 1919 town Sam wanders through where vintage carriages look like props left simply laying around. Most of the story is confined to the house where all the action takes place, so aside from a scene where Sam goes to a dinner party with Evelyn, or the two wander into an underground bar, since it’s the era of Prohibition, the narrative spends the majority of time running through the same rooms and hallways. 

A good story can overcome weak production values but “The Cellar” is essentially a retread to classic time travel romances like “Somewhere in Time.” How the storm and barometer unlock the portals of time is barely if ever explained. The central focus becomes how Sam and Evelyn fall in love for no other reason other than she’s cute and doesn’t want to marry some rich jerk. Conveniently that pesky once in a lifetime storm is about to hit 1919, so Sam decides to bring Evelyn back with him. But you see, time travel is never easy and so Sam is accidentally thrust back into his timeline and then struggles to return to save Evelyn. What follows is a script that never bothers with questions of logic involving time travel, or even obvious issues like the psychological trauma Evelyn would no doubt endure upon such a switch in eras. This is a romantic melodrama, aflame with an evil traditional sister who insists Evelyn be a proper woman and marry, and heroic, bold proclamations of love by Sam, who we see in 2019 swiping around a dating app before time travel changes his ways. 

The best moments in “The Cellar” come near the end where the writing strikes a rather melancholy note. This is when the show gets closer to classic anthology series like “The Twilight Zone,” which are coming back in vogue these days thanks to the success of titles like “Black Mirror.” But “Amazing Stories” is pure escapism with a hopeful heart. It has no other purpose than to entertain. “The Cellar” is, despite its flaws, never boring, it’s just that in comparison to its peers it feels more like filler.

Amazing Stories” season one premieres March 6 with new episodes streaming every Friday on Apple TV+.