On the evidence of the new streaming service’s few months of programming, Apple are better at making phones than curating television. The only hit so far has been the Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell vehicle The Morning Show, and even that divided opinion. Their dodgy first few months have been quite reassuring, in a way. Even with that much money and power, it’s still hard to pick winners.
The platform’s latest effort is Little Voice, created by Jessie Nelson and Sara Bareilles, the duo behind the musical version of Waitress, and exec-produced by JJ Abrams, because he exec-produces everything. There is a passing resemblance to the 1998 Jane Horrocks film of the same name about a young female singer, although no official connection as far as I can tell.
Bess (Brittany O’Grady) is a waitress and dog-walker in a twinkling version of New York where you suspect nothing truly bad could ever happen. She moonlights as a cover singer and music teacher, and dreams of playing her own material, which she practises in a storage unit when she has a free moment between her four jobs. But Bess is traumatised by a previous experience, when some drunk men booed her offstage, and can’t get it together to perform. As she is constantly told by her colleagues, friends and family, she will need more hustle than that if she’s going to make it in such a cutthroat industry. And if she’s not going to bother, then she ought to do everyone a favour and stop moping around the place feeling sorry for herself.
In the first episode, the perfect opportunity appears when another singer storms out of Bess’s bar. But after warbling through a few lines of her own song, she panics and plays a cover instead. It’s a convenient metaphor for the series, which never tries something original when a cliché will do instead. Bess has a beloved autistic brother (Kevin Valdez), a South Asian roommate (Shalini Bathina) whose parents are obsessed with her finding a husband, and a tentative love interest in the form of Ethan (Sean Teale), who is working on a film in the next-door unit. Everywhere Bess looks she sees people expressing themselves musically: a cellist playing Bach in the park; a flamboyant dreadlocked drummer; singers and mariachi bands.
O’Grady does what she can with a role that requires her to be gifted but wet, which is not an especially likeable combo. There’s a place for earnest and well-meaning fairytales. Little Voice could be wholesome good fun, a kind of frictionless 2020 update of Coyote Ugly, were it not for one key weakness: the songs. Great musical TV needs tunes we want to hear. But Bess’s efforts are weedy little numbers, the kind of thing you hear in the corner of a quiet bar rather than indicators of misunderstood genius. In television, as in music, not every hopeful has what it takes.
Season one of Little Voice can be streamed now on Apple TV+