ICYMI: Constellation Is the Alt-Universe, Sci-Fi Family Thriller You Didn’t Know You Needed

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ICYMI: Constellation Is the Alt-Universe, Sci-Fi Family Thriller You Didn’t Know You Needed

Editor’s Note: Welcome to ICYMI! With so much TV constantly premiering, we’re highlighting some of the best shows you may have missed in the deluge of content from throughout the year. Join the Paste writers as we celebrate our underrated faves, the blink-and-you-missed-it series, and the perfect binges you need to make sure you see.

What if you went to space, but returned to a world that wasn’t quite right when you finally made it back to Earth?

That’s the catalyst at the heart of the new Apple TV+ series Constellation, which just wrapped its first season and turned its slow, mysterious build into one of the biggest surprises—and brain-busting finales—of the year.

The streamer is cranking out science fiction originals at a rapid clip these days, focused on everything from alien invasions to alt-histories of space exploration, but the latest delves into a trope and subgenre we don’t often get to see explored at such depth and length across a full series: alternate universes.

But Constellation does more than just play with the concept, it drops you into a family torn apart and brought back together by two realities that look similar on the surface, but are broken in a few distinct ways. The show centers on Naomi Rapace’s astronaut Jo Ericsson, who is caught in a disaster on the International Space Station (ISS) when a mysterious object collides with said station and causes a catastrophic failure. Miraculously, Jo makes it home. …Or does she?

Constellation begs the question of what actually happens when humans leave our world behind for the stars, and is a reminder of just how dangerous and mysterious space remains all these years later. It’s a concept that made Alien so chilling almost 45 years ago, even more so than the (actual) alien at times. Space exists beyond our world, and we’re still figuring out exactly how it changes us when we go there and venture to come back.

Jo returns from space to find a husband who thinks she’d been having an affair with a co-worker before she left, despite the fact that she has no idea why he’s suspicious. She returns to a daughter who doesn’t use her normal “pet” nickname, and doesn’t speak Swedish, despite the fact they were chatting in Swedish via FaceTime before the ISS accident occurred. And their family car, did it used to be red, or was it always blue?

The idea of questioning reality and alternate worlds isn’t a new one in science fiction. Just in recent-ish history, everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Doctor Who to Stargate to Fringe to Arrow and so many more have dabbled in the concept. But it’s more rare to see it explored across a full series, zeroing in on the granular, personal ways waking up in the wrong universe would affect everything from your psyche to your family over the long-term, day-in and day-out. Do you go mad? Can you learn to accept it, even knowing you’re not in the right world? How can you live knowing the little girl you raised isn’t the one asleep down the hall now? Those are the questions Constellation revels in during its first season. 

If you’re a fan of one-season cult hit TV, the idea might loosely feel familiar, as Constellation shares some distant DNA with the short-lived 2012 NBC series Awake, which ran for one brief season and starred Jason Issacs as an LA detective who awakens to differing realities every time he falls asleep. In one, his wife has died in a car crash; in the other, his son. It was a mind-bending series that lived in the concept and didn’t try too hard to give you answers. The same could be said for Constellation—just that Jo’s problem isn’t switching between universes, it’s being stuck in the wrong one.

Though the narrative largely focuses on Jo and her journey, the supporting cast is crucial to making the series work. James D’Arcy (Agent Carter) plays Jo’s husband, William Catlett plays a fellow astronaut who was also aboard during the catastrophe, and Jonathan Banks (Better Call Saul) plays a scientist who was leading a mysterious project that could hold the answer to what’s happening, and might understand better than anyone what Jo is dealing with.

But the young actresses who truly steal the show are relative newcomers Davina and Rosie Coleman, the twin sisters who portray Jo’s daughter Alice. Alice is written as an intuitive child who knows there’s something off about the version of her mother that came home from space, and she goes on a journey of her own to make sense of all this weirdness and figure out what it means for her own life.

A critical part of the story is set in a snowy cabin, as we leap back and forth between moments throughout the season and slowly piece together why the setting is so significant. It projects some true Stephen King vibes, especially evocative of The Shining’s setting, so it’s no major surprise that King himself has expressed his own admiration for the series. Sure, Constellation skews a bit more into science fiction territory than much of King’s work, but it absolutely understands how the desolation of a frozen tundra can ratchet up that sense of disconnectedness and fear.

Which is an idea made all the more fitting as Jo finds herself completely alone in a world that’s not her own, desperately searching for a way back. Does she find it? Here’s hoping we get a second season to truly find out.

Watch on Apple TV+

Trent Moore is a recovering print journalist, and freelance editor and writer with bylines at lots of places. He likes to find the sweet spot where pop culture crosses over with everything else. Follow him at @trentlmoore on Twitter.

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

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