Little Voice has a mechanical heart and an auto-tuned soul [Apple TV+ review]

By

Sean Teale and Brittany O'Grady star in the contrived musical romance Little Voice.
Sean Teale and Brittany O'Grady star in musical romance Little Voice.
Photo: Apple TV+

The latest lightweight Apple TV+ crowdpleaser comes from producer J.J. Abrams, songwriter Sara Bareilles and writer Jessie Nelson. Little Voice, which debuts on Apple’s streaming service on July 10, hits every single beat you expect — and none you don’t.

There’s little chance you won’t experience precisely the emotional journey and reaction you’re anticipating just from looking at the show’s promotional materials.

If you wanna watch a scrappy, model-beautiful singer finally find her voice with help from a supportive and kooky family of zany outsiders, and then live her dream of being a star, then yeah, come on in.

Little Voice review

It’s pretty wild how little the shape of the aspirational musical drama has changed in the last … eternity. From Smash to Glee to the 1998 movie Little Voice, to which this show owes a debt but only superficially resembles, you know exactly what you’re going to get.

Bess (played by Brittany O’Grady) is one of those young women who has perfect pitch and looks like an actress. And yet Little Voice wants us to feel like she’s got the grace and composure of a derelict wino. It never once tracks that she’s anything but due for discovery, or that a dog walker can afford the spacious Ikea-showroom-style apartment she shares with closeted roommate Prisha (Shalini Bathina).

Everyone lies about everything in this show, apparently embarrassed to be human. And yet when asked to keep secrets for each other, it’s as if they’ve never heard of the concept before. Everyone is appalled at the idea of hiding Prisha’s sexuality from her parents like they’d never hidden anything from their own parents before. Bess insists Prisha lie to Bess’ estranged mother (Katrina Lenk) about her job as a dog walker.

The year is 2020 and lying to our parents is still the greatest hurdle TV writers can imagine for their characters.

This is not the real world

When Bess isn’t tending her career, she’s checking in on her formerly famous street singer father (Chuck Cooper) and her autistic brother Louis (Kevin Valdez), who loves musicals. Her family is a convenient burden, always showing up to distract her when she needs to concentrate, in some cases genuinely out of nowhere like they are teleporting between New York’s boroughs.

The show is written in such a way that things that should be advantages, and would be in reality, become heavy burdens. The fact that her dad is such a legend that an engineer at Electric Lady Studios apparently grew up listening to his music in no way helps her become famous.

Bess instantly meets a British (and model-handsome) paramour named Ethan (Sean Teale) who works out of the same storage locker center where she rehearses. They will encourage each other’s dreams over the course of the show’s nine episodes.

A string of predictable cliches

The trend of beautiful British boys also being the boy next door in America (see also: Modern Love, Locke & Key) can’t help but also shake the foundation of rawness that showrunners seem like they’re attempting to project. It just makes the show seem more like the fairy tale it is. As if that isn’t picture perfect enough, Bess has another competitor for her affections in guitarist Samuel (Colton Ryan).

Every single time Bess gets up to perform, she has a full-on (but perfectly scripted and carefully performed) meltdown that attempts to paint her as a stumbling, shambling mess. She just never achieves mildly ruffled, let alone the disgrace the character is supposed to be. That’s the trouble with a TV mess: She can’t actually be as temperamental and grotesque as written or she wouldn’t deserve the big breaks her character eventually receives. Of course, that sort of sucks the surprise out of the arc when she naturally becomes a sensation.

Music of the heart

Brittany O'Grady has the smallest uphill climb to fame ever in Little Voice
Brittany O’Grady faces the smallest uphill climb to fame ever in Little Voice.
Photo: Apple TV+

The show goes to great pains to show New York as a city bustling with music. (Before you ask, yes, the finale involves Louis and his similarly challenged friends singing Hamilton because that’s just life now. Hamilton morning, noon, and night).

The competition of course stacks the decks against Bess being discovered, but it also feels ever-so-slightly disingenuous because the acts she keeps seeing on the subways of New York all also have perfect pitch and a professionally produced sound.

This is also apparently a New York that doesn’t have the litany of breakdancers on the subway everyone who lives there knows only too well. Furthermore, Bess has to be the only musician in New York without a YouTube channel, because the prospect of making a music video all but short-circuits her.

So out of touch …

This, ultimately, is the problem when rich people write about poor people. The specifics don’t track. Bess constantly worries about rent, yet also has top-of-the-line recording equipment and enough money to rent out her storage unit every month. It’s a little thing, but the writing is haphazardly edgy, as if someone realized at the last second that the only thing separating Little Voice from something on The CW is the freedom for its young heroes to swear and drink. The characters do so with little conviction.

The show is a purposeful melting pot of sexualities and ethnicities, an aesthetic that takes after Ryan Murphy‘s school of inclusivity and parity in front of the camera. It’s lovely to see so many kinds of people represented, but it also would be nice if the show had room for people who weren’t astonishingly talented, learned in art history, jaw-droppingly beautiful, and with a clear vision of how to become successful. This is a show that wants to believe that the decks are stacked against its scrappy heroes, but they overcome basically every obstacle in their way.

Little Voice is meant to be an inspirational look at people beating the odds to find their true calling. It’s just entirely too clear that nothing will actually stop its impossibly beautiful and talented star from getting everything she wants, superficial concerns notwithstanding.

Rated: 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.