The primary mystery surrounding this uneven anthology series produced under the same auspices as Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” is why ABC is kissing it off so unceremoniously — dumping the project not only during the summer but on Saturday nights, no less. Clearly shot on a modest budget with an eye on homevid, of the four installments previewed in this collection of adapted short stories, one is quite good, another’s better than OK, and two are fairly lousy, which, as TNT found with Stephen King’s “Nightmares and Dreamscapes,” isn’t a bad batting average for such an endeavor.
Each episode features two marquee actors, and the first — “A Clean Escape,” based on John Kessel’s story and directed by Mark Rydell — has the intense, claustrophobic feel of a one-act play. Set in the future, Judy Davis plays a dying woman, questioning a patient (Sam Waterston) who can’t remember the last 25 years.
“That wall between you and your memory is coming down,” she warns ominously.
That’s the better-than-OK part. Unfortunately, the following week “Lost’s” Terry O’Quinn and “Law & Order” alum Elisabeth Rohm co-star in “The Awakening,” a Howard Fast story about the threat of world annihilation that proves considerably less compelling — as does the third segment, “Jerry Was a Man,” a Robert A. Heinlein story starring Anne Heche, rendered as an overly broad cartoon by writer-director Michael Tolkin.
Saving the best for last, however, is the quite good “The Discarded,” telling the story of a group of misfits banished into space aboard what amounts to a huge floating prison. The ever-mercurial Harlan Ellison adapted his short story along with Josh Olson, and it showcases the kind of rich, detailed material that packs a surprising amount of character development into an hour, buoyed by John Hurt and Brian Dennehy as two of the misshapen voyagers, with “Desperate Housewives'” James Denton making a cameo appearance.
Anthology series pose an obvious marketing challenge, inasmuch as they lack recurring stories and characters to lure viewers back week after week. Moreover, few have been especially meritorious in recent years, including the various attempts to revive the genre’s standard bearer, “The Twilight Zone.” (Professor Stephen Hawking provides the brief narration here, his simulated voice proving eerily appropriate.)
Still, the idea of bringing these renowned sci-fi authors to the screen would seem to possess a built-in audience, if not perhaps in the sort of numbers that would justify a regular slot on ABC.
Whatever the business considerations, the best of these hours deserve better than being so unceremoniously shot into space. In that respect, the Ellison story proves strangely prophetic — reflecting a network that didn’t know what to do with an unconventional outcast that didn’t fit neatly into a predetermined mold.