After a bumpy start, the Apple TV+ reboot of Amazing Stories headed off in an agreeable direction. Between its heart-on-the-sleeve emotional core and the very modern, depressive look at the deflation of the American dream, this is a show that understands why people need to believe in the impossible today.
Episode 4, titled “Signs of Life,” might not be a perfect hour of television. However, it’s got its heart in the right place. And a host of excellent elements make its story beats hit with extra force.
Amazing Stories: ‘Signs of Life’ review
“Signs of Life” is directed by TV vet Michael Dinner (The Wonder Years, Chicago Hope). His thoughtful compositions help situate the actors in their murky mental spaces. The episode is written by Leah Fong with an assist from Chinaka Hodge, who wrote Amazing Stories’ best episode yet, “The Heat.” Their collaboration works wonders, bringing the show back to the counterintuitive miserable realities of “The Heat.”
Sasha Lane brings it
Sasha Lane (American Honey, Hellboy) stars as Alia, a kid who had to grow up fast when her mother slipped into a coma after an accident. In the six years her mother spent sleeping, Alia’s grown disillusioned with her life — and especially her job at a diner.
Her boyfriend, Cody (played by The Chi’s Jacob Latimore), dreams of leaving their town and the rut in which they are both stuck. But so far, legal means of earning money haven’t helped them. They want to buy a car in a hurry, and he’s started looking for quicker and dirtier ways of doing so.
In the midst of all this, Alia’s mom, Sara (Michelle Wilson), wakes from her coma and throws the young girl’s life into disarray.
Coming out of a coma
“Signs of Life” is at its best when showing the frustrated relationship between the newly awake Sara and her very frustrated daughter. Wilson and Lane exhibit the right kind of strained chemistry to power the domestic squabbles that take up the middle third of the episode. Lane’s Alia knows something is wrong with her mother, but she also hasn’t spoken to her in six years. She doesn’t know if the maternal love she once relied on is absent for medical reasons, or if something weirder is going on.
This being Amazing Stories, it’s the latter. There’s a kind of half-cooked cosmic conspiracy at play in the B-story of the episode as Sara starts meeting up with other people who also “miraculously” emerged from long comas. But Fong’s story doesn’t spend any more time or energy on the logic of that than necessary.
On the one hand, it’s frustrating to walk away with an incomplete portrait of the possible extraterrestrial activity motivating the big set pieces. But, as with the ghost story element of “The Heat,” it’s just not that important.
Ultimately, “Signs of Life” isn’t about aliens. It’s about living below the poverty line, and looking for inspiration and motivation where you can find it. With three episodes in a row focusing on people with no job security living in gray and dreary neighborhoods affected by income inequality, it’s clear now that Amazing Stories is primarily a show about the need for escapism during a depression.
Even the weakest episode of the season, “The Cellar,” concerns house flippers, an occupation that became a hotly covered national craze right around the last financial crisis. The new Amazing Stories shows people in every stage of late capitalism — except rich.
“Signs of Life” is strong enough to punctuate the themes of the preceding entries and stand out as its own solid hour of television. With just one episode left this season, it’s possible Amazing Stories will end up one of the strongest shows in the current Apple TV+ lineup.
Watch on: Apple TV+ (subscription required)
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.