This article contains spoilers for the original Amazing Stories television series, but if you pay attention while you’re watching it, you’ll probably figure out what the twist is going to be ahead of time.
Apple TV+ has revived Amazing Stories, the science-fiction and fantasy anthology that Steven Spielberg produced for NBC and Universal in the mid-1980s, and the arrival of a new version of this legendary television show (plus the the arrival of a new species of the legendary Betacoronavirus genus) will doubtless send audiences back to revisit the original series. Some will be motivated by warm memories of gathering around the TV set for the original show, which aired for two seasons from 1985 to 1987. Some will be first-time viewers, curious to see what Spielberg and fellow A-listers like Martin Scorsese, Robert Zemeckis, Joe Dante, and Clint Eastwood got up to under the technical, financial, and cultural constraints of 1980s primetime network television. Some will be Apple TV novices who are trying to watch the new series and blunder their way into buying the old one from iTunes by mistake. But whatever their reasons, everyone revisiting Amazing Stories in 2020 has one thing in common: They’re in for a horrible disappointment.
Or at least, they’re in for a horrible disappointment if they turned on Amazing Stories hoping to kick back and binge-watch some amazing stories. It’s not that the show isn’t good or interesting—sometimes it’s great, and it’s always interesting, even when it’s interesting because it’s a trainwreck—but the median episode quality is not very good. Partly, that’s because the median episode quality is literally not very good: The versions available on streaming services are fuzzy standard definition transfers that look like hot garbage. Partly, that’s because watching Amazing Stories means being forcibly steeped in the smarm and sentimentality and historical amnesia of the Reagan era, which can be bracing and unpleasant. But the main reason Amazing Stories can be surprisingly bad is that it’s very easy to forget, after Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, what it meant for something to be “Spielbergian” in 1985, much less game out what it might have looked like if a bunch of people who weren’t Steven Spielberg tried to recreate that feeling on a television budget week after week. More often than not, what it looked like was the chase scene in “Santa ’85,” a lifeless homage to E.T.: The Extraterrestrial shoehorned into an episode in which Santa Claus gets arrested and teaches local sheriff Pat Hingle a valuable lesson about the meaning of Christmas.
But even in the worst-case-scenario that is “Santa ’85,” Amazing Stories still offers its audience the fun of watching Pat Hingle, five years before his terrifying performance in The Grifters, taking his best stab at being heartwarming while learning the true meaning of Christmas. The impressive, unlikely, and occasionally baffling constellation of talent that assembled to make Amazing Stories is one of its great pleasures, regardless of the quality of any individual episode. The cast is a cross-generational grab bag that includes Kevin Costner, Mark Hamill, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Eve Arden, Lukas Haas, Gregory Hines, Seth Green, Harvey Keitel, Laraine Newman, Haley Mills, and Rhea Perlman, and the series finale remains the one and only collaboration between The Texas Chain Saw Massacre director Tobe Hooper and “Weird Al” Yankovic. So how did so many amazing talents make a show that was so rarely amazing?
The production model probably had a lot to do with the final results. In some ways, the original Amazing Stories was a botched trial run for our current era of A-list TV: The show reportedly came into being when Spielberg made an offhand comment to MCA head Sid Sheinberg that he might like to make a TV anthology some day. In no time at all, Sheinberg had called NBC and got him one. For their part, NBC decided to find out if they could make great television by paying big money for a big name, then staying completely out of the way. The answer turned out to be a resounding “No,” but until the Nielsen families weighed in, Amazing Stories’ no-suits model was a creative gold rush for both Spielberg’s New Hollywood cronies and the gaggle of up-and-comers he brought in, all of whom were willing to work for scale in exchange for freedom from network meddling. “Inclusion in the show has become the industry’s version of getting invited to solo on ‘We Are the World,’ ” Elvis Mitchell wrote in Film Comment at the time, in an article that quoted an anonymous director who was furious that Burt Reynolds had been asked to direct an episode when he had not. Compounding the slight was the unusually high number of opportunities to be a part of Amazing Stories. NBC purchased two years of the show without so much as a pilot, committing to produce 44 episodes at $750,000 per episode—more than they were paying for The Cosby Show, already a mega-hit in its second season—and Universal TV picked up the budget overruns, said to account for another $250,000 or so per episode. “Steven will not do television unless he has the tools to do so,” sniffed Universal TV president Robert Harris.
In exchange for the financial support and creative freedom, Spielberg, who took story credit on 18 episodes, “unpacked his trunk of unused ideas,” according to one advance look at the show. Some of those ideas might have been better off left in the trunk: Washington Post critic Tom Shales observed that the credits for the dull, sappy Spielberg-directed premiere episode, “Ghost Train,” would have been more accurate if they had read “Based on a doodle by Steven Spielberg.” Audiences felt the same way: Amazing Stories was promptly and soundly clobbered in the ratings by the second season of CBS’s Murder, She Wrote, and critics were even more underwhelmed than audiences. (The lede on Steve Daly’s review for the Chicago Tribune is representative: “Amazing? This is amazing?”) For its second, contractually obligated season, NBC moved the show off Sunday nights and sent network executives out to give contrite interviews about the lessons they’d learned, but audiences never came back. When the network cancelled the series in 1987, no one was surprised.
And yet, despite being a critical and financial disaster, Amazing Stories is essential viewing—but which episodes are essential viewing depends entirely on what sorts of pleasures you’re looking for. If, for example, you’d like to see the lengths people would go in order to avoid mentioning certain unpleasantries, you can’t do better than “Dorothy and Ben,” in which a black man who has been in a coma since 1946 awakens in the 1980s, asks no questions at all about anything that’s happened while he was asleep, and immediately embarks on a single-minded mission to sacrifice his own life to save a comatose seven-year-old girl. (You can guess what color her skin and hair are.) If you’d like to watch Amazing Stories’ filmmakers get themselves into and out of various fixes, you’ll want to start with, “Life on Death Row,” in which director Mick Garris gives inmate Patrick Swayze a magic healing touch that makes affected areas glow bright red (because E.T.), then makes him heal the warden’s blind, blond daughter (because 1986), all while trying to avoid evoking Village of the Damned (because creepy). But if you’re old-school, the type of person who wants to enjoy an episode of television because it is a good, well-made episode of television, Amazing Stories has a few things to offer you, too. Here are the best episodes.
“You Gotta Believe Me”
One of Amazing Stories’ most effective excursions into horror, “You Gotta Believe Me,” from screenwriter Stu Krieger and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves director Kevin Reynolds, stars Charles Durning as a suburbanite who has a vivid nightmare about a plane crashing into his house. Network TV standards and toy company skittishness seem to have teamed up to make that nightmare sequence particularly uncanny. Reynolds doesn’t show the bodies from the crash except for a mop of blond hair under some wreckage—this show’s dedication to valuing the lives of blond children above all else was unparalleled, even for the Reagan years—and Worlds of Wonder presumably decided that making Teddy Ruxpin the official automated talking toy of aeronautic disaster wouldn’t be great for sales, so the centerpiece of the crash is a half-burned, malfunctioning off-brand Teddy Ruxpin saying, “Once upon a time, there were three…” on a loop.
Visually, the episode looks like total garbage, because it has a lot of night scenes, and neither the soft SD video transfers nor the streaming compression algorithms have been kind. (For a show that shot on film and went to great trouble to render its cornball CGI opening at double TV resolution so it would be HDTV ready, Amazing Stories is unbelievably badly preserved.) But the central image of the crash is pure nightmare fuel at any resolution, and the finale is one of the series’ best action sequences.
“Remote Control Man”
Mostly, Amazing Stories is in love with television—the show’s most consistent theme across episodes is that the toys and movies and TV shows you grew up with are sacred forever—but A Christmas Story director Bob Clark’s entry in the series, which stars One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s Sydney Lassick, suggests there might be something a little hollow about building your life around the tube. Family life is always pretty abstracted and stylized in 1980s television, but Clark takes this to the point of kabuki theater. There are probably ways to suggest that a man is unhappy with his home life without a scene in which his son (Jeff Cohen, Chunk from The Goonies) tries to puree his hand in the garbage disposal, causing his wife (Nancy Parsons, Coach Balbricker from Porky’s) to slap him across the face him for ignoring his child’s “cry for love.” But why would you bother looking for them?
The first act of “Remote Control Man” would stand as the definitive portrait of domestic misery until at least 1994, when Oliver Stone surpassed it with the “I Love Mallory” section of Natural Born Killers by adding Rodney Dangerfield and incest. The normal character arc for a henpecked husband in a TV episode entitled “Remote Control Man” would be a Click-style magic remote control that allows him to control the people around him, and indeed, Sydney Lassick’s character does end up with a magic remote control. Instead of a mute button, however, it allows him to replace the people in his life with TV characters, so before long, he’s happily married to June Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver and together they are raising two lovely sons: Arnold from Diff’rent Strokes and Face from The A Team. The problem is that the TV characters are still TV characters, so Face promptly attempts to put some crooked loan sharks out of business and brings the wrath of the mob down on the entire family. Things don’t get less metafictional from there: the cast includes Ed McMahon, Sanford and Son’s LaWanda Page, Name That Tune’s Jim Lange, the NFL’s Lyle Alzado, and of course, The Richard Simmons Show’s Richard Simmons.
Amazing Stories’ single animated episode, from The Incredibles director Brad Bird, was a bigger deal at the time than it seems now, because television animation had gotten to be exceedingly rare by the time “Family Dog” aired. “When was the last time you saw an animated show on prime time that didn’t focus on a holiday?” Bird asked one journalist in the run up to the episode. The story of a wretched suburban family as seen through the eyes of their long-suffering pet, “Family Dog” was spun off into its own series in the 1990s, but the Amazing Stories episode is the one to watch. Bird’s theory of animation while at Disney was that it could be constructed more like live-action, and this episode, his first animation directing job, was a chance to bet big on that theory. There are plenty of shots that suggest the presence of an actual camera, but the centerpiece is a home movie sequence that suggests the presence of actual film: Bird uses visible film leader, amateurish camerawork, overexposure, and even emulsion and batch numbers to precisely replicate the look and feel of 8mm home movie footage.
Tim Burton did the character designs, while the look and sound, especially the kids’ voices, come from UPA and the Hubleys, but conceiving of animation as footage someone (presumably someone animated) had to shoot—that’s Brad Bird. The home movie section is also a valuable piece of cultural anthropology: The entire experience of roasting your family members while watching silent home movies together is gone now, but “Family Dog” shows exactly what it was like. Maybe a little less cartoony.
“Go to the Head of the Class”
A showcase for a demented performance from Christopher Lloyd that leaves nothing on the table, director Robert Zemeckis’ episode has a simple but universal moral: If you’re playing heavy metal albums backwards, as one does, and discover that a song called “Teacher’s Threat” by a band called “Blood Sausage” has instructions for invoking “the curse of Delcite,” maybe don’t follow those instructions. Scott Coffey and Mary Stuart Masterson ignore this lesson at their own peril, and the best way to understand exactly what that means is to watch the original network promo:
Some Christopher Lloyd performances are missable. (See, e.g., the 1996 DOS game Toonstruck.) This one is not.
A work of deranged genius from writers Gail and Kevin Parent and director Irvin Kershner, “Hell Toupee” is probably best known these days as the basis of a Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” episode. That’s a shame, because this is the rare case where the original is much stranger and funnier than the parody. “Hell Toupee” tells the timeless story of an up-and-coming lawyer who discovers that the client he is defending for murder was the victim of a demonic toupee that possesses any hapless bald man unlucky enough to wear it, sending them out to slaughter lawyers who advertise “reasonable rates.” We’ve all been there, of course, but Kershner and the Parents were the first people brave enough to say so on national television.
But it’s not just a question of being demonic toupee pioneers: “Hell Toupee” is better than the run-of-the-mill “evil toupee with a grudge against lawyers” stories that followed because of its exquisite execution and attention to detail. From delicate touches that suggest an entire worldview—e.g., the terrible painting of a sea captain that is inexplicably hanging in a high-end lawyer’s office—to the gonzo finale, a chase scene set at a toupee convention that prominently features a giant sign reading “TOUPEES THAT SHOOK THE WORLD” above a display of mannequins of historical figures wearing bad toupees, one of whom is Samson, every frame of “Hell Toupee” is packed with thick, luxurious, lifelike detail. Flawless.
Whatever happens with Apple TV’s Amazing Stories reboot, it’s already clear that the computer-manufacturer–turned-studio will avoid some of the pitfalls NBC fell into: They’ve ordered 5 episodes, not 44, and if any of them are about voodoo babysitters or sexy ghost cops, they didn’t make it into the trailers. Fewer episodes probably means there’s no chance another “Hell Toupee” has made it through the development process, but every era gets the Amazing Stories it deserves. If you like the sillier side of Amazing Stories , take heart, because these things go in cycles: Sooner or later, another television network or streaming service with something to prove will try to buy artistic legitimacy by writing a check to Steven Spielberg.