I hear America asking: "What was so 'amazing' about that?"
"Amazing Stories," Steven Spielberg's passionately anticipated television series, his first as producer and guiding light, premiered on NBC last night, unscreened in advance by TV critics or even by advertisers. The presence of the Spielberg name is supposed to be enough. Well, it isn't.
"Ghost Train," the first of 22 short-story films to be seen this season on the new anthology series, was directed by Spielberg and based, by writer Frank Deese, on a Spielberg story. In addition, Spielberg is executive producer of the series, a responsibility whose job includes, Spielberg said recently, selecting the composers who do the background music for each installment. On opening night, no surprise, the composer was John Williams, the longtime Spielberg collaborator who also wrote the robust and spirited theme music for the program.
Unfortunately, familiarity was the motif for the night. The story, about a crusty old gramps who conjures the ghost train of the title that will carry him off to eternity, evoked memories of films Spielberg already made -- including "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "E.T." and the swooningly sentimental Spielberg episode of "Twilight Zone: The Movie" -- and some he didn't make, like Ron Howard's "Cocoon" and the old MGM heart-mugger "On Borrowed Time," in which Lionel Barrymore kept a personification of death trapped amid the branches of a back-yard tree.
In "Ghost Train," gramps, played by Roberts Blossom, is brought to the new home of his son and daughter-in-law, which he discerns to be located directly in the path of Old 407, a train that, 75 years earlier, almost ran over his head. Gramps has felt guilty about this ever since and decides that tonight, the train will come for him and he will keep his rendezvous with destiny. It does. He does. End of story. Shouldn't the credits have said, "Based on a doodle by Steven Spielberg"?
Where the program stood tall above most TV fare was in the quality of production and, since Spielberg himself was in the director's chair, in the variety and purposefulness of the shots and camera angles. When gramps first arrives, Spielberg's camera is on a crane to capture the adoring grandson's eager run across a picture-perfect midwestern field, made accurately contemporary by the presence of a satellite dish over in the north, or south, 40.
The wholesomeness of it all was terribly appealing and encouraging, too. Sunday night used to belong to Ed Sullivan and his opera stars and acrobats and mouse puppets; it used to be family night on TV. Spielberg could help restore that tradition. Even so, the sugar content of "Ghost Train" seemed to reach toxic levels, in addition to the suspicion that Spielberg has returned to the dewy-headed innocence of his youth once, if indeed not a dozen times, too often.
The grandson was nicely played by young Lukas Haas. Most of the acting was more polished than is usual for prime time, but Gail Edwards, as the boy's mother, was unfortunately induced to plumb the depths of ninniness. Obviously, the show belonged to grandpa and the boy who called him "Opah" and to the train, which made a spectacular appearance in the last few minutes, crashing into the living room of the house.
At that point, viewers could finally identify what it was that young Haas had been shouting about in promos for the series aired through most of the summer: "Mom! Dad! It's coming!" Unfortunately, the other most relevant line on this premiere of the Spielberg series was spoken by an actor who had the small part of a doctor. He asked the boy's parents, "You don't actually believe any of this, do you?" He could have been asking us folks out here in Television Land.
Not precisely amazing, but certainly mysterious, was the ineptitude NBC showed in promoting this seasonal showpiece as its appointed hour on the air grew near. It was scarcely mentioned during the football game that preceded it (a game marred by satellite troubles for which the network never apologized to viewers) or the postgame show, and as "Punky Brewster" ended just before 8 p.m., an announcer advised that "Silver Spoons" was "coming up," which it wasn't. "Amazing Stories" was, but you had to know that on your own. Networks do so many things badly, but you do expect them at least to be able to ballyhoo their own star attractions.
Maybe word has spread quietly through NBC that the Spielberg show is a disappointment, and not to make too big a deal out of it. But the great thing about anthologies is that this week's letdown may give way to next week's revelation. Spielberg has many stories yet to tell. We sit here hopeful and eager and rooting for Spielberg to make good on his promise. He has, to paraphrase Noel Coward, a talent to amaze; perhaps it will be more merrily exercised in weeks to come.