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New Dramas To Make Us Sit Up And Take No-doz

October 02, 1985|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Not so amazing.

All that waiting and wondering about the premiere of Steven Spielberg's "Amazing Stories" came to an end Sunday. Now there will be waiting and wondering anew--to see if it will get better.

The TV drama anthology--NBC's "Amazing Stories" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and the new "Twilight Zone" on CBS--has returned this season, mostly with a thud.

It's not that any of the three premieres was truly bad TV, only that none met expectations.

Bland TV is more like it.

That's especially true of "Amazing Stories," which was created by the amazing Spielberg (director of "Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "E.T." and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and producer of "Back to the Future"), who was returning to the medium where he first worked as a director 17 years ago.

For reasons that are murky, Spielberg was very secretive, keeping the premiere under wraps until the last moment. He has written or provided the story for many of the half-hour episodes and has directed several. Those include the disappointing opener about a ghost train that returns to pick up an old man who as a child inadvertently had caused it to crash and kill everyone aboard.

The performances by Roberts Blossom as the old man and Lukas Haas as his grandson were fine, and the production had a nice look. But the episode substituted repetition for wit and suspense and seemed to run out of pacing and story about halfway through. How many times did we have to be told the train was coming?

Is Steven Spielberg, as executive producer, unable to sustain even a half-hour TV story minus commercials? That's a grim thought.

Other name directors are also set to contribute their efforts to "Amazing Stories," and the nice thing about anthologies is that the slate always wipes clean, and tomorrow is always another day.

Following "Amazing Stories" on Sundays is the new Hitchcock series at 8:30 p.m., in which the late Hitchcock introduces each episode via color-infused clips from his old black-and-white TV series. A nice idea.

Some of the half-hour stories are new, others updates of old Hitchcock dramas. The twist on the premiere--a modernized Hitchcock episode about a screwy woman who caused her husband to kill a man she had accused of assaulting her--was that there was no twist.

If you saw the original episode, you knew the ending. And if you hadn't seen the original, you still could guess what was coming; it was that predictable. Again, a nice-looking show, with nice acting by Linda Purl and David Clennon, but punchless.

The real twist is that many of the original Hitchcock shows--which ran from the mid-'50s to mid-'60s and are still in wide syndication--were not very convincing, either. Many viewers wrongly assumed then that he had directed all of these mystery stories when, in fact, he directed only a few and in most cases was merely the program's amusing gatekeeper. In fact, his introductions were frequently better than the stories that followed.

"How do you do?" he would begin each episode in that clipped British accent. Not well, so far.

There was more reason to expect good things from Friday night's new "Twilight Zone," which re-creates one of TV's true classics that aired from 1959 to 1965. Rod Serling hosted and wrote much of the original series, which was famed for Serling's distinctive narration and stories that were unusual, ironic and farsighted. You can still catch them in syndication.

Though uneven, the premiere of the new TV series was in many ways creatively superior to a recent ill-fated movie version. Each of the new hour episodes contains two or three original stories. That means two or three chances.

CBS made good on one of them on the premiere.

It opened unpromisingly with Bruce Willis ("Moonlighting") playing a man who absent-mindedly dialed his own number from a bar and was jolted to hear himself answer the phone. The voice belonged to his alter ego or conscience. After several more phone conversations with his other half, the man rented a hotel room and fell all to pieces.

Unh unh.

Think about it. If you were the one who made the call, would you check into a hotel before rushing over to your house, knocking on the door and confronting yourself? Wouldn't you at least call the cops? Or Roto Rooter?

Balancing this pointless tale was a swell, neatly acted piece of work starring Melinda Dillon as a woman who discovered a way to freeze time and to silence the world when it became too noisy. Her euphoria was brief, though. In the end, she was faced with choosing between the nuclear destruction of the United States and living the rest of her days alone, as Earth's only functioning human.

Are you listening, Steven Spielberg? Now that was an amazing story.

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