tv review

Little Voice Wears Its Heart on Its Sleeve

Brittany O’Grady in Little Voice. Photo: Apple TV+

The third episode of the new Apple TV+ series Little Voice is called “Dear Hope.” Like all of the ten half-hour installments in this first season, it’s named after a song, specifically a lyrical open letter to optimism that the show’s protagonist, aspiring musician Bess King (Brittany O’Grady of Fox’s Star), is in the process of writing. But that title could just as easily apply to this entire drama, which follows Bess’s uphill battle to make it as an artist, but is infused with enough sentimentality and idealism to make it an easy, uplifting watch, at least for those who won’t find all that uplift too cloying.

The show’s gentle, heartfelt tone completely matches Bess’s musical style, which she describes at one point as Alessia Cara meets Carole King. One might also say that she sounds a lot like Sara Bareilles, which makes sense since Bareilles composed the original songs for Little Voice, in addition to executive producing it alongside series creator Jessie Nelson, her collaborator on the musical Waitress.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Bareilles described Little Voice as “an amalgamation of so many of the struggles that I’ve seen.” The depictions of those struggles from Bess’s perspective — acute stage fright, record executives who praise her talent, then say they can’t sign her because they don’t know what genre she belongs in — provide some of the more authentic moments in the season. Little Voice also has a flair for turning the creative process, something that is generally internal, into something dynamic and visually arresting. There’s a lovely sequence in the seventh episode, “Ghost Light,” in which Bess sits at her piano and peels away at the wallpaper of her New York City apartment as images of the families who lived there before swirl in the space around her. Naturally, all of this inspires her to start composing new music and lyrics.

Bess acknowledges that her work is earnest, and that’s a good word for what this series is, too, sometimes to a fault. As an active member of the gig economy, Bess holds down multiple jobs, including bartender, music instructor, performer at a nursing home, and dog walker — and if there’s a dog or multiple dogs in any scene, which there often are, you can bet Little Voice is going to cut to their precious poochie faces for a reaction shot. Louie (Kevin Valdez), Bess’s older brother, is on the autism spectrum and attempting to live independently, but still very reliant on his sister. He’s also obsessed with Broadway theater and has absorbed seemingly every mundane fact known to humankind about Annie and Dear Evan Hansen, a fixation that provides fodder for a few funny moments, but is sometimes too cute by at least half.

In addition to the demands of caring for someone on the spectrum, Little Voice deals with other serious issues. Bess’s father (Chuck Cooper), a singer who never hit it big, is an alcoholic whose addictive tendencies may have been passed on to his daughter. Bess’ roommate and best friend Prisha (Shalini Bathina) is a closeted lesbian afraid to come out to her traditional Indian parents, who are constantly trying to set her up with potential husbands. Then there’s the love triangle that Bess finds herself wedged into, between Ethan (Sean Teale), a video editor who works in the storage unit next to the one Bess uses as a studio, and Samuel (Colton Ryan), who plays guitar and sings back-up to Bess’s lead. Any time that two or more of them share a scene, it quickly escalates into a Who Can Exchange the Most Meaningful Glances competition. In certain ways, this show is reminiscent of This is Us, in that it, too, traffics in what I call comfort trauma: situations that can be intense and high-stakes, but that the audience knows will never get too grim or gritty, because the vibe of the series is too pleasant to allow it.

That said, every time I could feel my eyeballs starting to roll back in their sockets, something in Little Voice would compel them to return to their default, straight-ahead setting. While it may not be realistic, the New York City imagined by the series emits such an inviting, warm glow, it’s as though the whole place has been illuminated by fireflies and bistro lights. O’Grady, who should be at the top of the casting list if a Norah Jones biopic is ever made, is a captivating presence and does a believable job of capturing Bess in her fragile moments and her stubborn ones, even when the scripts require her to make those shifts a bit too abruptly. The canvas of characters the series casts is also admirably and organically inclusive, with representation of the disabled as well as people of a variety of races, ethnicities, ages, and sexual orientations.

It’s true Little Voice may wear its heart a little too obviously and, sometimes, clumsily on its sleeve. That may put some viewers off. But there’s also something to be said right now for a series that provides an escape into a parallel universe, where sincerity, beautiful melodies, and hope are nestled in the nooks of a New York City filled with promise instead of pandemic fatigue.

Little Voice Wears Its Heart on Its Sleeve