Amazing Stories finds surer footing in second episode, ‘The Heat’ [Review]

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E’myri Crutchfield & Hailey Kilgore in the Apple TV+ show Amazing Stories
E’myri Crutchfield and Hailey Kilgore enliven the newest episode of Amazing Stories.
Photo: Apple

The second episode of the redesigned Amazing Stories finds its legs with a story of a track star caught between life and death.

If showrunners Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz have anything even a fraction as good as this up their sleeves for the rest of the season, Amazing Stories might prove the strongest of Apple TV+ shows, considering its short episode order.

This week’s offering — titled “The Heat” — goes a long way toward making up for the deeply inessential season opener, “The Cellar.”

The new episode of the TV-PG anthology series grounds it fantastical elements in the heartbreaking tragedy of the everyday. Instead of taking a normal guy and thrusting him into a lazy rehash of familiar genre elements, “The Heat” makes the fantastic come to it. This is very much a story of a reality that rejects the wonderful and weird. And, sure enough, the revelation that something supernatural is afoot isn’t greeted with much surprise or awe.

Amazing Stories Episode 2 review

“The Heat” was directed by Sylvain White (Stomp the Yard) and written by poet and speaker Chinaka Hodge, who turned from her Ted talks and collaborative work with hip-hop artists to writing for television.

Her Amazing Stories episode precedes her work writing for the show Snowpiercer, based on the 2013 sci-fi movie directed by recent Oscar winner Bong Joon-Ho, and starring her Getback bandmate Daveed Diggs. Her voice is unmistakable in “The Heat.” She captures the way young girls speak to each other in a way that doesn’t sound like it was worked out by six out-of-touch screenwriters in a Burbank conference room, as is so often the case when TV writers tell stories about adolescence. Riverdale this ain’t.

“The Heat” centers on Sterling (played by E’myri Crutchfield) and Tuka (Hailey Kilgore), two girls who know that their athletic prowess spells their way out of their neighborhood. Tuka is the standout athlete, and the more outgoing of the two. Their bit of equal jealousy is beautifully played by Kilgore and Crutchfield. They’ve dedicated their lives to becoming track and field champions so they’ll more likely earn scholarships to decent schools.

They reward themselves for their diligence by hitting a party after school one night. On the way home, Tuka is struck by an automobile, killed, and then returns as a ghost. She wakes up in time to witness her own funeral, the world blind and deaf to her presence. In a miserable, existential funk, she spends her days following Sterling around the neighborhood as she investigates the hit-and-run accident and trains for an upcoming track meet. It’s during one of these sessions that she discovers something remarkable: Sterling can hear Tuka’s voice when they run together.

Can’t stand the rain

E’myri Crutchfield and Hailey Kilgore try to outrun destiny in the newest episode of <em>Amazing Stories</em>.
E’myri Crutchfield and Hailey Kilgore try to outrun destiny.
Photo: Apple

There’s a lot going on in “The Heat.” To White and Hodge’s credit, it all flows effortlessly from the central relationship. Supernatural goings-on, a possible murder cover-up, an inspirational athletic narrative — all of it is perfectly articulated because it all shades a fractured and deeply felt relationship. We care about the various threads because we care about Tuka and Sterling.

White grounds their crisis in the perpetually gray and ruined neighborhood the girls call home. The sun never shines on the two girls’ dreams, literally and figuratively. The rain-slicked environs and the heartbreaks, major and minor, that plague Sterling in the wake of her best friend’s death all feel uncomfortably real, as they should.

Tuka’s ghostly rebirth is similarly treated as an awful burden. She quickly gets over the shock and settles into feeling trapped. Kilgore and Crutchfield’s chemistry is remarkable, their pettiness and love for each other equally well-sketched. They wear the drudgery of their routine and the hopelessness of their situation well, but out of that comes a real and lasting love for each other.

The show’s central metaphor could easily have been overplayed, but White and Hodge don’t push it. They let us understand the crushing significance of the girls sharing in death the one thing that bonded them in life. The restraint is almost shocking.

A sign of good things to come for Amazing Stories

Amazing Stories‘ Spielbergian style dictates promise that the honestly dour tone cannot last (and that we never see any of the kids doing drugs or alcohol). However, even the few feints at crowd-pleasing don’t take away from the vibrantly grim through line of the piece.

Yes, the ending proves happier than warranted by the excellent work done in the first 45 minutes of the episode. But when the match is this good, it’s alright that the last punch gets pulled. At its best, “The Heat” recalls Anna Rose Holmer’s similarly uncanny and lovely The Fits, about a school plagued by a strange sickness.

If Amazing Stories has anything else this good waiting in the wings — and the next episode tantalizingly promises the final performance from veteran character actor Robert Forster — we could have a winner on our hands.

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.