Once upon a time, in the long-ago mid-1980s, when TV was the universal entertainer (people actually stayed home to watch stuff! All the time! And didn’t wait to watch it when they had time, like the weekend, or a vacation; they watched shows when they aired! Crazy times.), Steven Spielberg dabbled in TV.
Mind you, at this point, he had already directed “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the first two Indiana Jones movies and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” fully establishing himself as an accomplished filmmaker. Why would he bother with television?
Well, he didn’t – not for long, anyway. Spielberg created an anthology series called “Amazing Stories,” roughly in the tradition of “The Twilight Zone,” where each episode stood on its own, telling stories that were creepy, bizarre, funny, twisted, inexplicable, or just plain scary. Some stories included ghosts haunting ghosts, a toupee that makes a man do murderous things, a man obsessed with a lifelike doll and more.
Perhaps because of its creator, the series attracted some big talents, including Spielberg, who directed one episode, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Robert Zemeckis, Brad Bird and Tobe Hooper. Even Burt Reynolds and Danny DeVito took a turn at the helm. Well-known faces appearing in episodes included DeVito, Sid Caesar, Kevin Costner, Dom DeLuise, John Lithgow, Gregory Hines, Eve Arden, David Carradine, Harvey Keitel, Jon Cryer, James Cromwell, Andrew McCarthy, Rhea Pearlman, Christopher Lloyd, Mark Hamill, Seth Green, David Rappaport, Kyra Sedgwick, Bob Balaban, Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Annie Potts, Kiefer Sutherland and many, many more. Suffice it to say, “Amazing Stories” did not lack for talent.
And yet the show ran for only two seasons, from 1985 to ’86. But the show captured a certain ’80s storytelling mood, one perfected by Spielberg in “E.T.” and other hits of the era, that model of creepily weird tales that were unbelievable by adults (at first), and that’s why they were told from a kid’s perspective. Twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, creators of last year’s hit “Stranger Things,” took that vibe and ran with it, to much acclaim, and its long-anticipated second season begins streaming Friday on Netflix.
“Stranger Things,” set in small-town Indiana in 1983, is mostly reminiscent of “E.T.,” with its divorced mom of two boys, one of whom is harboring a strange being; shadowy government agents who are after said being; and the lengths to which a group of nerdy friends will go to protect this mysterious and enigmatic creature. All elements of movies the Duffers loved as kids; the show also recalls “The Goonies,” with its band of bike-riding misfits on a quest to discover answers to a mystery, but there are elements of Stephen King, John Carpenter, and even John Hughes, with its rich boy/good girl/outcast boy romantic triangle. Casting ’80s movie darling Winona Ryder as the hysterical mom, Joyce Byers, whose son Will’s disappearance into the shadowy parallel dimension called the Upside Down served as the first season’s storyline, cemented the series’ retro cred.
When the series returns as “Stranger Things 2,” playing more like a movie sequel than a second season, it’s around Halloween 1984, and strange things are again afoot in Hawkins, Indiana. Joyce has a new beau, RadioShack employee Bob, played by Sean Astin (“Goonies,” anyone?); another ’80s familiar, Paul Reiser, joins the cast as the new head of the shadowy government entity; Will (Noah Schnapp) is having flashbacks of his time in the Upside Down; the four friends – Will, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) – are back obsessing about a new baddie, the “shadow monster” (and a girl threatens to break up some friendships); and Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) is just trying to keep the lid on everything that went down, as he promised when he sold out Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown, the secret being hidden from the adults and the catalyst for the creation of the Upside Down).
And what about Eleven, who kind of disintegrated last year while destroying the faceless monster who kidnapped Will (among others)? Time will tell if she returns, though it’s highly likely. “Stranger Things 2” should be streaming on Netflix now.
Speaking of Halloween: An all-new animated special comes to CBS Friday from none other than Michael Jackson. Not quite from beyond the grave, “Michael Jackson’s Halloween” was created by Optimum Productions, which is owned by Jackson’s estate. The one-hour special features music from the King of Pop and is the story of two millennials, Vincent (Lucas Till) and Victoria (Kiersey Clemons), who find themselves at a mysterious hotel. What happens inside sends them on a path of magical discovery, and ends with a dance number (naturally). The special, which also features the voices of Christine Baranski, Lucy Liu, Brad Garrett and Alan Cumming, airs at 7 p.m. Friday on Ch. 3.
Your favorite “Saturday Night Live” Halloween oddity returns as an animated character in “The David S. Pumpkins Halloween Special.” Featuring Tom Hanks, who played the character on “SNL,” and his dancing-skeleton sidekicks, Mikey Day and Bobby Moynihan, the special features the three of them teaching some children the meaning of Halloween, answering none of their questions in the process. The show airs at 10:30 p.m. Saturday on Ch. 15.
Lest we overlook the most important task of all, Linus will once again search for the most sincere pumpkin patch in hopes of a visit from the Great Pumpkin in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” airing at 7 p.m. Sunday on Ch. 27.
And PBS offers a closer look at one of the great horror writers in “Edgar Allen Poe: Buried Alive,” part of the “American Masters” series. Denis O’Hare (“True Blood”) re-creates the American poet and author with Poe’s own words as scholars provide insight into the mysteries of his dark life; “Poe” at 8 p.m. Monday on Ch. 21.
What else is new? The third season of NBC’s “Blindspot” returns at 7 p.m. Friday on Ch. 15. The second season premiere of “Superior Donuts” airs 8:30 p.m. Monday on Ch. 3. And the premiere of “S.W.A.T.,” starring Shemar Moore as the leader of an elite tactical team in LA law enforcement, airs at 9 p.m. Thursday on Ch. 3.