Anyone who has ever stared at a blank screen, page or canvas, knows that creating something truly unique—whether with words, musical notes, or paint—can be an overwhelming challenge. You may possess an innate talent that few are fortunate to have. But how do you unlock your brain to unleash your creativity? And once you do, will anyone notice?
In Apple TV+’s new series Little Voice, aspiring singer/songwriter Bess King (Brittany O’Grady) is living in New York, trying to break into the music industry and juggling many, many side gigs. She walks dogs, bartends, teaches piano, and performs Sinatra tunes at nursing homes all while writing, composing, and performing her own original songs. She always has her notebook with her so she can jot down a lyric whenever it comes to her. She has the hustle and the drive. But as we all know, that often isn’t enough. She needs the dumb luck that can propel her, if not to fame, to a place where she can support herself through her music.
But Bess’s life is full of distractions. There’s her autistic brother Louie (Kevin Valdez) who is a delightful encyclopedia of Broadway knowledge but requires Bess’s constant attention. There’s her father Percy (Chuck Cooper), an alcoholic who is struggling with how his talent may be fading with age. There’s her absentee mother who abandoned the family years ago. And there’s the not one, not two but three men who are all vying for her attention.
The series was created by Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson, the duo behind the Tony nominated Broadway musical Waitress, another story about a woman who wanted more out of her life. The pair ensure that Bess’s songs are beautiful, charming tunes that you may just find yourself humming along to long after you’ve finished watching the series. Songs like “Waiting For My Real Life To Begin” and “More Love” sound like a hit Bareilles might have had.
The other executive producer is J.J. Abrams, now known for TV shows like Lost and Westworld. But, of course, Abrams first foray into the television landscape was the beloved WB classic Felicity (#TeamBen forever in case you’re wondering). The two series have a lot in common as both hone in on finding yourself and your true voice in the city that never sleeps.
Bess’s other problem is that in a world of auto-tuned hits and music stars that are more personalities than singers, she doesn’t fit neatly into one box. She describes herself as “Alessia Cara meets Carole King meets Betty White.” (Because Betty White loves dogs, of course.) One music executive tells her “You’ve got the voice. You’ve got the writing. You’ve got ‘it’ whatever that means. I’d love to work with you. But I have no idea what to do with you. I don’t know how to market you. I don’t know what genre you’d be in.”
The show does set up some romantic quadrangles, namely with fledging director Ethan (Sean Teale), who is very much in a relationship with someone else, and fellow musician Samuel (Colton Ryan), who is almost infatuated with Bess. Not to mention a slimy music producer (Luke Kirby who can do peak smarm so well) who Bess sees right through. “I honestly believe if I met you at a different time under a different circumstance, you’d still be a dick,” she tells him. While Bess’s love life is definitely part of the show, it’s not the main thrust of it. Her aspiring career is, and that’s extraordinarily refreshing.
The show hinges on the viewers’ desire to see Bess succeed, and to ride her rollercoaster of two steps forward and one step back as she navigates the tricky landscape of the music business. To quote that movie producer, O’Grady has got “it,” so going along with Bess on her journey is an easy thing to do. But at times the series can be far too self-indulgent, lingering for too long on a sequence as Bess struggles to write a song or find the perfect lyric. But for the most part the show’s inherent earnestness is well suited for the story it is telling.
The strong supporting cast helps this immeasurably. For example, Bess’s best friend/roommate Prisha (Shalini Bathina) has a plot line that starts off a little predictably but then veers into something more interesting. Valdez’s Louie is introduced as fully realized, something not seen often enough with special needs characters. The struggle for Bess to have her own life while also making sure her brother is safe and well cared for is an important through line for the series. “You’re too young to live half a life,” the manager of the group home Louie lives in tells her. “He’s not going to get hurt, not on my watch,” Bess retorts.
While the producers had no way of knowing this would be the case, there’s something so wistful about seeing the New York City we all remember, with its vibrant populated streets, pulsing nightclubs and thriving Broadway industry. It made me nostalgic for a New York I hope returns sooner rather than later.
It’s probably not fair to judge Little Voice on the “is it worth paying for Apple TV+?” scale but that’s where we are in these streaming times. The series is charming and O’Grady is a knockout. Each episode is less than 30 minutes long (bonus!) but is it alone enough to make you open your proverbial wallet? Probably not. Little Voice may not be a breakout, but it does join a diverse and growing chorus of Apple original series whose platform is still struggling to find an “it” factor of its own.
The first three episodes of Little Voice premiere July 10 on Apple TV+.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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