Thursday, October 10, 2019

Top ten 'Amazing Stories' episodes

I did a brief overview of this criminally underappreciated series in honor of its 30th anniversary back in 2015, and had planned to do an episode by episode review of the series. But alas, I only made it in a few episodes in as other creative projects beckoned. But now that the second season is finally released on a region free DVD and the show is available steaming on Amazon, I’ve been re-binging the series. So here are my top ten episodes of this glorious piece of entertainment from the mid-80s. More in-depth, full reviews of individual episodes will be posted soon.

Also of note, a reboot of the show is underway from Apple TV, due to hit in March of 2020, But I am keeping my expectations low. It does not appear that Spielberg is as directly involved as he was the original, and recapturing the Spielberg/Amblin 80s vibe can be an elusive task. But as Stranger Things and Bumblebee proved, it can be done. So we shall see. (Update 3-17- 2020. I have seen the first episode of the reboot,  "The Cellar", and was quite pleased. It does appear to have the Spielberg touch and feels as if the bearded one was more involved than I had believed. Looking forward to the rest of the new episodes.)

“Dorothy and Ben”
Directed by Thomas Carter
Story by Steven Spielberg
Teleplay by  Michael De Guzman

This perfect gem of an episode is exactly how to best maximize the short dramatic format. Take a compelling high-concept idea, (in this case a man awakens from a forty-year coma and finds he can communicate with a young coma patient), and bring it to life with tight writing, spot on direction, and superb acting. Joe Senaca gives a haunting, deeply affecting performance as a modern day Rip Van Winkle. Director Thomas Carter tells the story economically, keeping the focus on what the story is about, namely Dorothy and Ben. Be warned, you may want to watch this episode alone. It is very emotional. The music by legendary French maestro Georges Delerue is gorgeous and adds to the overpowering bittersweet feel of this deeply moving masterwork.

“Without Diana”
Directed by Lesli Linka Glatter
Written by Mick Garris

The number two slot on my “Amazing Stories” all-time list goes to another tearjerker, also scored by the master of melancholy, Georges Delerue. Ten year-old Gennie James is wonderful as the title character with Billy Green Bush and Dianne Hull turning in strong work as her grieving parents. The directing by Lesli Linka Glatter is pitch perfect. She wisely gives us the emotional space to experience the catharsis we so desperately need during this emotional meatgrinder of an episode. If an Amazing Stories directing MVP award were given, it would go to Lesli. She directed three outstanding episodes, “Without Diana”, “No Day at the Beach”, and “One For The Books”. She went on to become one the most acclaimed directors in TV history helming everything from four episodes of the original “Twin Peaks” to twenty-three episodes of the current “Homeland”.

“The Amazing Falsworth”
Directed by Peter Hyams
Story by Steven Spielberg
Teleplay by Mick Garris

A relentless exercise in horrific atmosphere and tension, this moody masterpiece in suspense would have made for a great episode of “Night Gallery” or “Circle of Fear” back in the 70s. The lead performances by Gregory Hines and Richard Masur (from “One Day at a Time”) are Emmy worthy. And then there is the knockout direction and cinematography (both by Peter Hyams”) and the wickedly scary score by 70s horror music icon Billy Goldenberg. This is the best directed episode of the entire series, and considering the Hall of Fame roster of directors for this series, that is saying a lot.

“The Mission”
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Story by Steven Spielberg
Teleplay by Menno Meyjes

This knockout, special hour long episode, directed by the man himself, is most often the show associated with the series, since it was rebroadcast often in the 90s as part of the “Amazing Stories” movie package, especially on the SciFi Channel (as it was called back then). The production values and glorious cinematography are on par with anything you could have seen in a movie theater at the time. Spielberg relishes being immersed  deep into two of his favorite themes, WWII and flying, and the director makes the most of a terrific ensemble cast, including pre-stardom Kevin Costner and Kiefer Sutherland. The music by John Williams might just be the best score composed for a television episode—ever.

“Mummy Daddy”
Directed by William Dear
Story by Steven Spielberg
Teleplay by Earl Pomerantz

One of the great things about “Amazing Stories” is the diversity in the types of stories. In addition to straight horror, fantasy, and science fiction, the show did quite a bit of comedy episodes, and this one is the best (with “Family Dog” a close second). The premise is pure farcical slapstick. An actor, playing a mummy in a movie, hurriedly leaves the set in full wardrobe to make it to the birth of his child, and chaos ensues. Director William Dear shows the same knack for balancing laugh out loud physical humor with character, action, and heart that he displayed a year or so later in “Harry and the Hendersons”. Catchy early Danny Elfman score (composed along with his partner Steve Bartek).

“The Eternal Mind”
Directed by J. Michael Riva
Witten by Julie Moskowitz & Gary Stephens

Jeffery Jones plays a terminally ill scientist working on a project to upload his brain into a computer hard drive. While this may seem like a tired idea in 2019, this was pretty bold, heady stuff for 1985, especially on network television. While many of the “Amazing Stories” episodes have a “Twilight Zone” vibe to them, this one feels like an “Outer Limits”, and a very good one at that. Also, this is one of many episodes to be blatantly ripped off by Hollywood blockbusters in 90s and 2000s. In this case the culprit is the 2014 flop Johnny Depp movie “Transcendence”. It is literally the exact same story, and done infinitely better here.

"Go To the Head of the Class"
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Story by Mick Garris
Teleplay by Mick Garris & Tom McLoughlin and Bob Gale

Robert Zemeckis and Christopher Lloyd hot off of “Back to the Future” in a special hour long Halloween themed horror episode? Indeed, and it is glorious. While I’ve mentioned “Night Gallery”, “The Twilight Zone”, and “The Outer Limits” in reference to other episodes, this entertaining gem (with some added gore) could very well have been on HBO’s “Tales From the Crypt”, a series that Zemeckis executive produced and directed for.

"Life on Death Row"
Directed by Mick Garris
Story by Mick Garris
Teleplay by Rockne S. O'Bannon

A pre-Dirty Dancing Patrick Swayze exudes star charisma in an electrifying (literally) performance as a death row inmate with the power to heal. Stylish direction by Mick Garris and a knockout score by “Star Trek’ veteran composer Fred Steiner. Yes, this too was ripped off by Hollywood as “The Green Mile”, and this episode also predated Steven King’s source material for the movie by a few years.

 "The Doll"
Directed by Phil Joanou
Written by Richard Matheson

John Lithgow won an Emmy for his wonderful performance in this joyous, romantic jewel of a story from the pen of legendary writer Richard Matheson, a frequent Spielberg collaborator and one of Rod Serling’s go to writer’s on the original “Twilight Zone”. The direction by the talented (and very young at the time) Phil Joanou is beautifully understated.

"Family Dog"
Directed Brad Bird
Written by Brad Bird

Acclaimed director Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”) helped launch his career with this thoroughly engaging animated episode that was so good, it was spun off into a series of its own.

Runners up

Other outstanding episodes that didn’t make my top ten but are well worth seeking out include Martin Scorsese’s  creepy “Mirror, Mirror”, Paul Bartel’s “Gershwin’s Trunk” starring Bob Balaban, Spielberg’s “Ghost Train” (the lead off episode of the series when it premiered in fall of 1985), Clint Eastwood’s lovely “Vanessa in the Garden” starring Harvey Keitel and Sandra Locke, the charming “Mr. Magic” directed by Donald Petrie and starring Sid Caesar,  “Without Diana” director Lesli Linka Glatter’s “No Day at the Beach” starring Charlie Sheen,  the feel good “Moving Day” directed by Robert Stevens, Phil Joanou’s “Santa 85”,  and two wonderfully offbeat Joe Dante episodes, “Boo” starring  Dante regulars, sexy Wendy Shaal and fan fave Robert Picardo, and the goofy but oddly enjoyable Gremlins-esque “The Griebble”