'Little Voice': TV Review

Apple TV+
Solid tunes and fine performances, but requires a high tolerance for earnestness.
7/10/2020

'Waitress: The Musical' duo Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson bring catchy songs and lots of earnestness to this Apple TV+ series about a young woman pursuing artistic dreams.

For a show about a young woman struggling to find her voice, Apple TV+'s Little Voice finds its own fairly quickly.

Of course, finding your voice isn't the same as being good, and it definitely isn't the same as that voice resonating with every audience — a fact that Little Voice seems fairly aware of.

In the first of nine half-hour episodes, our songbird heroine ponders, "Compared to what everybody's listening to, I think my stuff seems, I dunno, earnest?"

Honestly, what else would you expect from a series that's a collaboration between Waitress: The Musical partners superstar chanteuse Sara Bareilles and I Am Sam writer-director Jessie Nelson? It's very, very earnest and sometimes very, very clunky. Those caught up in its earnestness will forgive the clunkiness. I only sometimes did.

Brittany O'Grady (Star) plays Bess King, an aspiring singer-songwriter still smarting from the humiliation of her most recent attempt to play her own music live. While she scribbles notes for originals nobody will hear, she lives the life of a struggling New York artist, paying bills by bartending, walking dogs, teaching several instruments and performing covers at an old age home. Bess has a Broadway-obsessed brother (Kevin Valdez) who's on the autism spectrum and requires her constant care; an alcoholic father (Chuck Cooper); and a roommate (Shalini Bathina) chafing under pressure from her Indian parents to find a husband.

As the first season progresses, Bess finds herself in a potential love triangle with Ethan (Sean Teale), a British filmmaker and her storage locker neighbor, and Samuel (Colton Ryan), a fellow musician with whom she sings pretty harmonies.

Together, Ethan and Samuel combine to be barely one-dimensional, and the show seems only limitedly conscious of the fact that one comes across as an utter cad and the other as a creepy stalker. It requires a lot of "I believe that pretty people flirting on screen inherently have chemistry" faith to pretend that there's the slightest spark in either direction.

So even if you accept that Little Voice is Bess' story and her romantic interests are near-parodies of the kind of paper-thin roles women have been shunted into for centuries, buying this as a love story may be beyond your capacity. Little Voice is a distinctly irony-free zone that still could have benefited from some self-awareness. It's here that I point to seemingly unlikely Little Voice executive producer J.J. Abrams, whose Felicity work shows a more balanced blend of mawkish and mocking, plus a love triangle that justifiably had people invested.

It's much easier to accept the musicality of Little Voice because, with Bareilles as co-creator and writer of its many songs, Bess is wholly convincing as a commercial artist in the Bareilles vein, making it confusing when various A&R people don't know how to describe her sound. It's easy! The title track sounds like it was an outtake from a Sara Bareilles album. And it was! Other songs are comparably catchy, comparably earnest and, with sufficient repetition, they get in your head and stay there.

When she sings, or is just asked to behave naturally, O'Grady is likable and convincing — less so in the places that require humor or in an arc suggesting Bess' own drinking problem. Any of her scenes with the great Cooper, a Tony winner for The Life, have added authenticity, and she has beats of real sweetness with Valdez, an autistic actor whose frequently effective presence here shows that Nelson has learned some things since I Am Sam. The scenes with Louie and his transitional home group of neurodiverse friends blend comedy and sentiment and, like everything else here, the manipulation factor is high.

There are fine supporting turns from Luke Kirby (acting Bess' two love interests off the screen even in a smarmy role), Ned Eisenberg and a wordless yet wonderful June Squibb.

With Nelson behind the camera on the pilot and several subsequent episodes, Little Voice is a good New York show, making the most of ample location filming throughout the city and finding particular joy in street musicians of all skill levels. It isn't as natural and thrilling an evocation of pre-COVID NYC as HBO's Betty, but it has resonance.

I can't deny that "overly earnest" is far from my preferred love language and that Little Voice made me cringe frequently in its unabashed embrace of A Star Is Born-style tropes and cliches. I also can't deny that the show left me humming several tunes and that, in at least one moment, it induced blubbering. Your tears may vary.

Cast: Brittany O'Grady, Sean Teale, Colton Ryan, Shalini Bathina, Kevin Valdez, Phillip Johnson Richardson and Chuck Cooper

Creators: Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson

Episodes premiere Fridays on Apple TV+ starting July 10.