New Apple TV+ sitcom Trying is mostly failing [Review]

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Rafe Spall and Esther Smith are not trying hard enough in Apple TV+'s new series Trying.
Rafe Spall and Esther Smith are not trying hard enough in new series Trying.
Photo: Apple TV+

Even during quarantine, you’d really need to not value your time to look beyond the failures of imagination at the heart of Trying. The new Apple TV+ sitcom, created by Andy Wolton and starring Rafe Spall and Esther Smith as a couple who discover they can’t conceive, is sitcom 101.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with the premise, but neither is there much to recommend it. Wolton and company seem content to do the bare minimum.

Trying: Season 1 review

Nikki (Smith) and Jason (Spall) discover in the pilot that they can’t have a kid the old-fashioned way, so they begin the arduous process of adoption. He works as an English-as-a-second-language teacher while she toils away at a call center for a rental car company. There’s no particular obstacle to their adoption other than they’re comically unprepared for every single thing that happens to them.

They aren’t prepared for paperwork where they have to sell themselves as prospective parents. They forget when they’re due for an inspection from someone at the adoption agency (Imelda Staunton). And they don’t know how to look after their friends’ (Ophelia Lovibond and Oliver Chris) kids when given them for the afternoon.

In fact, they don’t seem either prepared for or excited about any single practical aspect of parenthood. It’s rather like they simply want kids because that’s what the sitcom is about.

F for effort

Rafe Spall and Esther Smith play parents who don't deserve children in Apple TV+'s new series <em>Trying</em>.
Rafe Spall and Esther Smith play parents who don’t deserve children in new series Trying.

No sense of Spall’s or Smith’s characters ever really emerges across Trying’s eight-episode first season. Spall, in particular, leans a little hard into what little characterization the script hands him. (That’s not his fault — it’s what you’re supposed to do as an actor.)

He comes across like a curmudgeonly and smug killjoy standing in the way of his impossibly optimistic and frankly equally as tiresome girlfriend. They talk about sex and relationships in ways no human would. And they can’t sell the dialogue as anything but a writer’s room contrivance.

Lame jokes that won’t make you laugh

The show, which debuts Friday on Apple TV+, also relies a little too much on gay and ethnic jokes. None of them seem mean-spirited, but it’s hardly the thing you expect to hear from a new show in 2020. Coming from middle-class white British people, it just sounds retrograde and tiresome.

The real test of a show like this is whether you laugh. I didn’t. Screen veteran Phil Davis makes an appearance as Spall’s dad, and every second he was on screen I was hooked in. However, he can only do so much to make this material sound appealing or clever.

Between the loathsome acoustic guitar score, the too-bright photography, and the years-past-its-freshness writing, this feels like the kind of thing that will be playing on TVs on showroom floors without ever attracting a loyal following. Harmless is not the word you want to reach for when describing a new TV show, but that’s the best I can manage.

If you’re going to make a sitcom today, you’d better have a killer premise and a strong writing team. Trying benefits from neither, so try something else.

Rating: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+ (subscription required)

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.