Apple TV+’s Constellation Is a Twisty, Sci-Fi Thriller Destined to be Mishandled

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Apple TV+’s Constellation Is a Twisty, Sci-Fi Thriller Destined to be Mishandled

I worry about Apple TV+. Well, not about the trillion dollar-valued corporation, and not even for the executives at the five year old streaming service that, since launch, has attempted to disrupt the TV landscape by doing exactly what everyone else is doing. I worry for the sea of creatives and showrunners who quickly discover that the support to get their novel, exciting projects a devoted audience and highly anticipated follow-up seasons doesn’t really exist.

Whether it’s ineffective marketing or the muddled timeline of making streaming-exclusive content, five years in, you still get the sense that Apple TV+ has to fight to get audiences to tune in to more than a couple of its shows. This makes it hard to separate Constellation from the production anxieties that surround it—sure, the sci-fi drama comes from the broadcaster of For All Mankind and Severance, but there’s about half a dozen other expensive genre flops Apple is currently pretending don’t exist too.

These streaming anxieties don’t crop up because Apple’s new mind-bending, conspiracy-addled, clearly-commissioned-in-the-wake-of-Severance thriller, is bad. On the contrary: it’s ambitious, slickly made, and well-acted, with Noomi Rapace giving a career-best performance as an ISS astronaut who starts to unravel upon returning to Earth from a near-death incident in orbit that involved a near-fatal collision with a cosmonaut corpse that isn’t supposed to be up there. It’s engaging, often unsettling, and ably wrestles with family drama as often as subatomic physics—this is a space show interested in the space that grows between us all.

Any show that reminds you of The OA deserves at least some attention, and Constellation’s fascination with the dramatic potential of quantum mechanics and the tactile emotional experience of a relative jettisoning themselves into space and not coming back the same person helps ground the cerebral and disorientating sci-fi that creator Peter Harness wants to probe us with. 

But as the season pushes on, the pleasant surprise that we’ve not been handed yet another high-concept but neatly self-contained streaming miniseries (the most disposable, expensive thing in television) turns a bit sour. There’s not a sense of where the show will go next, or at least, no sense of how it will go on being as interesting as it has been. Getting a second season for Constellation would be a net positive for TV; expecting audiences to wait the best part of two years for one person to write a second season of a prestige sci-fi show that hasn’t even finished paying the bills for Season 1 feels like we’re being set up for disappointment. These are the TV Times we live in, when being a certain type of “good” is a death sentence.

Constellation starts strong, dazzling us with an explosive two-episode premiere tracing a calamitous ISS accident that Swedish astronaut Jo Ericsson (Rapace) must battle to survive, directed by veteran prestige TV director Michelle MacLaren (responsible for Game of Thrones’ “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” and The Leftovers’ “Cairo”—two Hall of Fame episodes). Psychological distress awaits Jo back on Earth: her testimony is contradicted, memory inconsistencies disrupt family life, and she’s plagued with impossible, jumpscare visions—or at least, impossible for a not-dimensionally-messed-with world.

While nothing matches the spectacle and white-knuckle tension of those opening episodes, hopefully viewers will push on; Constellation is equally confident in unpicking the assumed stability of Jo’s family life. Before the ISS disaster, she knew she would be returning a frosty husband Magnus (James D’Arcy) and a drifting young daughter Alice (played by twins Rosie and Davina Coleman, a choice that makes sense eventually), but problems with her home life feel like an improper explanation, with both her and her daughter suspecting something is drastically wrong, a suspicion spurred on by space agencies trying to quiet her down about it. Constellation gets away with a lot of psychological thriller tropes once we realize sci-fi hijinks the story is getting at—the type of galaxy-brained premise that, were it to happen, would turn the most clear-headed character into a panicking paranoid.

Rapace isn’t the only underrated talent leading the show; even though they spend a minute amount of screentime together, Constellation balances Rapace’s breathless alertness with some stolid stubbornness from Jonathan Banks. Banks plays former astronaut Henry Caldera, who begins the show in charge of a subatomic matter experiment on the ISS that just might be responsible for things going haywire. It may not be immediately clear why the Better Call Saul star is playing an aging moonranger, but Caldera soon reveals a brazen temper and buried guilt that puts Banks squarely in the driving seat. As Constellation makes good on its sci-fi premise, Caldera is leading the story as much as Ericsson, and their respective energies help the show take full advantage of its conspiracy psychodrama.

It’s unfair to say Constellation is best in the premiere’s expensive space action sequence, but it certainly loses steam as it nears the end. After the sixth episode illuminates (too neatly?) the mechanics of our reality-shifting story, Constellation makes it clear that Jo’s family dynamics are the primary focus of its attention, so an insane and exhilarating development for Caldera in the last two episodes feels underserved. 

Normally, we would be crying for a Season 2 to pick up the narrative threads we’re most excited about, but we’ve been burned before; Constellation feels far too thorny and off-kilter to be prioritized in a shrinking streaming market by a network that can’t help itself spending $200 million on individual projects. An inventive mix of sci-fi and paranoia, a winning opportunity for an underrated international actor, a thoughtful and imperfectly written drama, Constellation feels like the worst type of quality show. It’s good enough for a major streamer to mishandle. 

Constellation premieres Wednesday, February 21st on Apple TV+. 

Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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