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Apple TV+ is excitedly referring to its new drama Calls as a “genre-bending thriller” and a “groundbreaking, immersive television experience.”
Put more transparently: Calls is a nine-episode series made up of seemingly unrelated phone calls that eventually form a creepy mystery, told with audio and abstract visuals.
Air date: Mar 19, 2021
Put more literally: Congratulations, Apple TV+, you’ve created a narrative podcast and attached a squiggly screensaver to it. You probably don’t want to tell actual professional narrative podcasters how much money you spent on this.
Now to be fair, the abstract visuals are definitely more advanced than a screensaver, but is the story being told by creator Fede Álvarez and a strong stable of writers presented with more complexity or artistry than a decent narrative podcast? Not even close. If the task of any storyteller is to find the best way to play to the strengths of your medium, making a middle-of-the-road podcast for TV sans embellishment is even less “groundbreaking” than the all-too-frequently bland recent attempts to adapt actual narrative podcasts to TV.
The episodes here run between 13 and 20 minutes and at least for a while, they’re stand-alone oddities featuring a cast of variably familiar actors whose voices are only somewhat assets to this process. You could have somebody barely audibly identifiable like Aaron Taylor-Johnson or Lily Collins in a nonvisual production, as Calls does. Or you could have a professional voice actor who might not have name recognition, but does this sort of thing for a living and knows how to add unforced inflection to dramatic situations. And why bother hiring somebody like Danny Huston or Karen Gillan and get them to tone down the aspects of their voices that are naturally remarkable to listen to?
Truly, Calls is a collection of choices that I mostly just don’t understand.
Was I still curious enough to follow the story to its conclusion? Sure. I didn’t say it was a bad narrative podcast accompanied by squiggles.
We open with an episode titled “The End” and focusing on a long-distance couple on the verge of a breakup on Dec. 30. In the course of the conversation, he’s interrupted by calls from a new flame and she’s interrupted by something very disturbing happening outside. By the end, they’re both part of something seemingly impossible, which the next eight episodes begin to explain.
Some of the stories, which fill in the gaps in the year preceding the phone call in the first episode, are similar. Whatever’s taking place on a global level has nasty body-horror elements and people scream into phones about things you can’t see, their words often garbled by poor reception or outside noise. One could argue that the theoretical virtues of this show could combine what was most effective about Álvarez’s gross-out Evil Dead remake and his relatively more subtle, bump-in-the-night Don’t Breathe. Maybe that’ll come together when Álvarez does a TV remake of Calls.
The best of the episodes are the ones that tinker a little with what becomes formulaic in a hurry. A climactic installment set largely on an airplane, with a pilot talking to a terrified flight attendant, ground control and a sweet-voiced child, is properly disturbing. Another episode featuring the voice of Pedro Pascal as an odd man with a strangely heavy duffle bag in his closet and Mark Duplass as the suspicious neighbor he sends to collect the bag is actually hilarious — one of the only episodes in which I felt like the vocal performances were actively beneficial.
As you start understanding the links between the freaky things happening to these strangers, there’s some amusement in realizing that this is basically a podcast version of a successful multi-film horror franchise — and then deflation in realizing that it finally amounts to something even sillier. But there’s some skin-crawling that kicks in here and there, abetted greatly by sound design from Mark Binder and an unnerving, borderline ambient score by The Haxan Cloak.
I watched episodes switching between my TV at high volume and my laptop with headphones on to try to get as many versions of the experience as possible in the hopes that something would click, meaning my concentration was more on the story and the audio. When it comes to the visuals, sometimes they’re just lines simulating the connectivity of the phone calls or the movement of characters who are driving or flying. We see different forms of longitudinal sound waves broken up by manifestations of static. We see elements of fractal chaos when things get really wild. The colors of the lines and spirals and loops change based on emotional pitch. I’m positive, in fact, that a second viewing in which I focused less on my ears — on trying to identify half-recognizable voices or pick out background details from the sonic tapestry — and more on my eyes might yield new visual depths.
Unfortunately, Calls isn’t engaging enough on the most basic of levels for experiential experiments. Yes, I think if you sit in a darkened corner of your home and watch Calls on your cellphone with top-tier headphones, interrupted only by the strangest noises possible from outside your window, it might work as an entertaining two+-hour radio play. But that’s way too much specialized effort for a show that, unfortunately, isn’t all that special.
Cast: Nicholas Braun, Clancy Brown, Lily Collins, Rosario Dawson, Mark Duplass, Karen Gillan, Judy Greer, Paul Walter Hauser, Danny Huston, Nick Jonas, Riley Keough, Joey King, Stephen Lang, Jaeden Martell, Paola Nuñez, Pedro Pascal, Edi Patterson, Aubrey Plaza, Danny Pudi, Ben Schwartz, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jennifer Tilly
Creator: Fede Álvarez from the French format by Timothée Hochet
Premieres Friday, March 19, on Apple TV+.
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