SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “The Cellar,” the series premiere episode of the reimagining of “Amazing Stories,” now streaming on Apple TV Plus.
As an anthology series, “the whole point” of “Amazing Stories” is “doing something new every week,” says Edward Kitsis, co-showrunner of the new version of Steven Spielberg’s 1985 series of the same name.
“With us coming back [almost] 35 years later to just redo something they had done, that’s not what [Steven] does, and that’s not what we would have been interested in doing, either,” he continues. “Steven Spielberg is the kind of filmmaker that reminds you why you got into the business — that love you had before you moved to L.A. — and that was so inspiring for us.”
“Amazing Stories” has had a long and arguably rocky road to the small screen. The original series, created by Spielberg, ran for two seasons in the mid-1980s. Thirty years later, there was an attempt at a reboot being developed for NBC with Bryan Fuller set as the pilot writer and executive producer, alongside executive producers Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank. Two years later, the project was moved to Apple, which had yet to name its streaming service, with an order for a 10-episode first season. Just a few months later, Fuller was out, as was another executive producer on the series, Hart Hanson.
It took until May of 2018, when Kitsis and Adam Horowitz joined the production to set the current team that did still include Falvey and Frank, as well as Spielberg. Kitsis and Horowitz, formerly of “Once Upon a Time,” took on co-showrunner duties. Production on the now five-episode first season began in November of that year, and now, almost 35 years after the original debuted, the reimagining is finally here.
“Adam and I are writers in this business because we watched Steven’s films and the wonder and the magic made us say, ‘Oh my God, you can make an entire career out of using your imagination?'” says Kitsis. “We’re believers. We believe in magic and wonder in the world.”
When Kitsis and Horowitz joined the show, they decided that because “there’s so much darkness in the world and there’s so much darkness in TV,” Kitsis notes, they wanted their audience to come out of each episode feeling “inspired and feeling like there is wonder in the world if you know what to exist.”
Although each of the five episodes is designed as its own standalone story, anthology or “individual pilot” style, per Kitsis, they intentionally drew a thematic thread through all of them. Taking cues from Spielberg, who Horowitz says always wanted to “take the ordinary and have it be extraordinary” with the experiences within “Amazing Stories,” the episodes are grounded by characters with circumstances the showrunners hope are relatable, even when they are placed in surreal circumstances.
“Every episode is forcing you to confront something about your life that you’re either running from or denying — and you either raise to that challenge and meet it and come out the other end better, or you don’t,” says Kitsis.
In the first episode, titled “The Cellar,” Dylan O’Brien plays a young man restoring a turn-of-the-century house with his brother. His brother is settled in life and happy with what he has chosen: He has a husband, a young child and his business. O’Brien’s character, on the other hand, is distracted by swiping through dating apps and is searching for more of a purpose; as Horowitz puts it, he is an “aimless millennial.”
During a storm, his character gets sent back through time to 1919, where he means a young woman (played by Victoria Pedretti) who is a gifted singer and more of an independent spirit than women were allowed to be at that time in history.
“These two needed each other at this time in their lives so that they could become the people that they were meant to become,” Kitsis says.
Much of the episode is dedicated to the two characters falling in love, but the ending “Amazing Stories” delivers is not a traditional one where the two end up together and live happily ever after. Nor is it the often-expected twist of setting up a happy ending, only to tell a tale of tragedy in which one member of the relationship doesn’t survive.
“The challenge for us on this was, how do you surprise an audience but still maintain a happy ending?” says Horowitz. “We didn’t want to go to a bleak or tragic place but we still wanted to keep the audience always thrilled and surprised and on a roller coaster.”
The answer in “The Cellar” was to send Pedretti’s character forward in time so she could live out her dreams, but to keep O’Brien’s character in 1919, where he found that the simpler way of life suited him — so much so that he started his own construction company, when construction was something he only did reluctantly with his brother in the present day.
“That, for us, is the happy ending because each person has their own path,” says Kitsis.
“The Cellar” is the only episode in the first season to feature time travel, in part because Spielberg imparted the importance of not repeating themselves. The second episode, Kitsis shares, is “about track stars in Oakland,” while the third (titled “Dynoman and the Volt” and featuring Robert Forster in one of his last roles) centers on a “grandfather who gets a ring that makes him a superhero.”
In keeping with the idea of not playing into tropes, Forster’s character, Kitsis continues, “is man who’s recovering from knee surgery who loves his job — he makes furniture — so when he gets the superhero ring, he doesn’t go out and fight crime, he does something very surprising [with it].”
The season finale, titled “The Rift,” is inspired by the comic of the same name and stars Kerry Bishe as a mother whose life changes drastically after learning there are titular rifts in space and time right in her own backyard.
“We took a very careful approach to how we laid out the five episodes,” Horowitz says, noting that originally “The Rift” was going to launch the new series. After watching a cut (directed by Mark Mylod), though, both Kitsis and Horowitz felt it had to be the closer — primarily because of the final shot of the episode.
“The episodes all span different genres, while all falling under that thematic umbrella of the ordinary meeting the extraordinary with a certain hopeful, aspirational quality,” Horowitz says.
The one area in which Kitsis and Horowitz didn’t mind playing into the expected was in having one of the episodes be a story about aliens: “If this is ‘Amazing Stories,’ one of them has to be an alien story,” Kitsis laughs. But, after spending seven seasons on “Once Upon a Time,” fairy tales were an area they purposely avoided.
“Fairy tales aren’t right for ‘Amazing Stories’ just in the sense that these stories really want to start in the real world,” Horowitz says. “I think when we were most successful on ‘Once Upon a Time’ was when we really grounded the human and emotional stories, and that’s what made you go along with the crazy fairy tale stuff and magic. That was the bar for us: What is the human story?”
Although the “Amazing Stories” episodes are each high-concept in their own right, spanning different genres, Kitsis adds, “the human story is the franchise, not the concept.”
New episodes of “Amazing Stories” stream Fridays on Apple TV Plus.