The Hollywood tradition of vocalists suddenly breaking into the acting world to give their dusty music careers a jump-start is nothing new. But musician and now executive producer Sara Bareilles, with her new Apple TV+ series “Little Voice,” is giving us all a chance to talk about a new kind of career crisis: when songwriters start writing scripts.
“Little Voice” follows a young New York millennial named Bess (Brittany O’Grady) who struggles to find the confidence to perform her original music. The character’s arc clearly follows her artistic development, setting her up to inevitably find her voice and share uplifting music with more than just the dim crowd at her evening bar job. Unless the plot takes a wild spin in the upcoming episodes, which are released every Friday, the story is seemingly predictable, but ultimately still endearing.
Bess embodies the classic young artist stereotype, working no fewer than four day jobs to support her dreams of producing and performing. But for now, as the story always goes in rom-coms that set feminism back a few decades, Bess struggles with being too awkward to handle the pressure of a stage … until a handsome stranger enters her life, that is!
The interactions between Bess and her subtle first love interest, Ethan (Sean Teale), feel inorganic from the beginning. Romantically strolling through a storage unit facility, stumbling upon a sneaky couple making out behind moving boxes and old vacuums, sharing vending machine snacks with a blush — the romance somehow feels both flushed out and forced in at the same time. But considering a new potential love interest is introduced just moments later in the season, it’s confusing whether the writers are setting these characters up to be just friendly or just flirty.
At times, all of the characters can feel overbuilt — not due to the acting, but rather the performative dialogue and rushed dramatization. Even some of the microproblems Bess faces — such as the constant mispronunciation of her fairly straightforward name — are unnecessary pieces of the already sharp-cut puzzle. As the show moves along, it becomes more and more clear that the writers probably aren’t writing about their own age groups, coming up with some model image of a struggling, yet always positive urban artist.
Considering the show is co-executive produced by J.J. Abrams — yes, the same one who worked on “Star Trek,” “Lost” and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” — it becomes even more unclear who the targeted audience really is. Judging by the show’s general tone, paired with its out-of-touch dialogue, this team seemingly hasn’t met a real-life person in their 20s since people still said “AF” out loud.
The actors themselves all give fresh, bubbly performances with every scene, but the script occasionally feels too written to do them justice. Take the character of Benny (Phillip Johnson Richardson), for example: Bess’s go-to friend would be a much deeper or more relatable character without all the Lyft references and unexplained enthusiasm. While each character has a somewhat clearly drawn motivation and driving inspiration, the writing doesn’t allow for anything less than cookie-cutter performances from its cast.
The series’ most genuine moment comes in the third episode, which documents one character’s experience facing the intersection of racism and homophobia. While both are hefty subjects to handle, the show gracefully portrayed the characters’ responses and how family dynamics can play into identity, allowing for some of the most heartfelt moments of the series thus far.
“Little Voice” isn’t meant to be an award-winning drama series, but it also doesn’t do a wonderful job of being an engaging couch watch. We can wait and see what the rest of season one has to offer, but for now, we’re still waiting for Bess to stop calling her voice so little.