Here’s a scoop: Home Before Dark finally finds its stride [Apple TV+ review]

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Deric McCabe, Brooklynn Prince and Jibrail Nantambu need to be Home Before Dark
Deric McCabe, Brooklynn Prince and Jibrail Nantambu investigate a new mystery.
Photo: Apple TV+

Home Before Dark, the Apple TV+ show about a cute and cuddly girl reporter, returns for more incongruous drama and more bad parenting. The show got off to something of a generic start in its first season, sandwiched between popular styles and uncertain of its identity.

But in its second season, which debuts today, the show digs a little deeper into the setting and characters. As a result, the creative team produced something close to an essential season.

Home Before Dark season 2 review

For those of you just joining us, Home Before Dark premiered in 2020 on Apple TV+. (Read our review: “5 reasons to watch Home Before Dark.”) The show is based on the real life and reporting of preteen reporter Hilde Lysiak, now 14, who was the youngest member of the Society of Professional Journalists when she joined*. She ran a newspaper out of her home in Pennsylvania with the help of her parents.

The series was created by Dara Resnik (I Love Dick, Castle, Pushing Daisies) and Dana Fox (How to Be Single, The Wedding Date, Cruella) and stars Brooklynn Prince as Hilde Lisko.

Rounding out the cast are Jim Sturgess as her father, Matt; Abby Miller as her mother, Bridget; Kylie Rogers as older sister, Izzy; and Mila Morgan as younger sister, Ginny. Joelle Carter plays school principal Kim Collins, Michael Weston portrays her boyfriend, police officer Frank Briggs Jr., and Aziza Scott plays his deputy, Mackenzie “Trip” Johnson.

Meanwhile, Hilde’s best friends Spoon (played by Deric McCabe) and Donny (Jibrail Nantambu) help her with every investigation.

Breaking news

Season 2 presents a sort of a war horse when it comes to stories about investigative journalism. Pull back the string on that Woody doll, because someone’s poisoned the water hole!

Yes, that’s right, animals and people alike are droppin’ like flies in Hilde’s hometown of Erie Harbor. She of course suspects foul play, but who or what is behind the rash of poisonings? This is personal for Hilde: Her grandfather (Reed Birney) moved back in with them because he’s starting to lose his cognitive functions. She wonders if maybe the same thing doing harm to local animals might also be contributing to the high mortality rate of Erie Harbor’s senior citizens. Or … the people who ought to have lived to be senior citizens.

There’s also the matter of Trip’s father (Scott Lawrence), who faces increased pressure from a corporation to sell his family farm. Hilde wants to know who’s leaning on him and why. Unfortunately, Trip can only be so much help because she, too, is getting a ton of pressure at work to show a firmer hand as a leader in the precinct. And that includes not giving a literal child whatever she wants whenever she asks for it.

Things are really conspiring to keep Hilde from her scoop.

An unrelated article within the banner headline?

Jim Sturgess and Brooklynn Prince do some digging in Home Before Dark.
Jim Sturgess and Brooklynn Prince do some digging in Home Before Dark.
Photo: Apple TV+

OK, so I think enough time has passed to talk about the Apple TV+ house style. Every streaming service has one, although some are a little more militant about enforcing the rules and restrictions.

Look at Amazon. It green-lights stuff to the tune of several hundred million dollars pretty regularly. So while there’s a certain heftiness to shows like The Boys, The Expanse and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, they don’t have much in common aesthetically beyond a sort of broadly readable depth of field. They’re paced similarly, they lean on hardwired cultural institutions, and they really flaunt their budgets.

Netflix shows all look crisper than Amazon shows — bright and flat to suit flatscreen TVs. Very little risk is taken in lighting and choosing the color palettes for Netflix originals, which unfortunately means they tend to come in two varieties: too dark and murky or too garish and boring.

The Apple TV+ style

Apple TV+ execs take a similar approach to the way they know their viewers will likely approach watching their shows. Basically they don’t stray too far from what’s worked in the past. In Ted Lasso, they have a show that could very easily fit in with the NBC comedy lineup. With The Mosquito Coast, they’ve got something like a Cinemax drama (well-directed, lightning-paced, heavy on incident, ushered by an auteur).

Mythic Quest is the work of the team behind It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. And the show doesn’t do too much to make you forget that, banking on the good will Always Sunny engendered across its impressive run.

The Apple TV+ team wants you to feel at ease watching their shows, like you’ve seen them before (because you have).

Home Before Dark channels The CW

Home Before Dark seems very consciously modeled after a lot of the YA programming on a network like The CW, which turned Archie comics into Triplet Peaks, and superhero comics into agreeable melodramas. The network’s shows are easily digestible and teen-friendly (though not exclusively).

Home Before Dark borrows that same color palette of muted pastels and brown. The soundtrack mixes classic rock and anonymous new indie rock. The performances are all very big and very cute and though the show flirts with real-life tragedy, it still expresses an earnest belief that, with the right amount of effort and good will, you can make the world a safer, better place.

It’s almost quaint watching a show like this in 2021, after ample evidence that a free and anxious press will do very little in the face of overwhelming evil and that police are not necessarily well-meaning small-town go-getters. So we have little choice, then, but to view Home Before Dark as fantasy.

As such it really ought to have reached for the stars. This season’s central mystery has a very small scale, because it’s trying to hammer home the Enemy of the Peoplepoisoned well theme. (Suitably, Hilde will become something of a pariah for trying to make her town safer.)

But in so doing, it all feels a little too cozy. Everyone will be given ample opportunity to do the right thing and … well, I don’t really buy it anymore. Yes, it’s still cute to watch the exploits of an adorable little cub reporter but the show feels so tidy that it’s downright anachronistic, which I’m not entirely sure the writers were going for. (If so, they could have set it in the ’60s or ’70s, but then that would deny Hilde her favorite movie: All the President’s Men.)

All the news that’s fit to print

But this is a positive review, right? The headline said so. Right, so what I think Home Before Dark does exceedingly well is finally planting the emotional stakes so firmly that they kind of wash away the real-world problems. The arc involving Hilde’s grandfather is, in spite of an over-reliance on dementia narrative 101-style tropes and developments, unspeakably moving.

Jim Sturgess was kind of a risky choice to play anyone’s father because he himself gives off zero gravitas as a performer. He’s like a wet dog, and it’s genuinely no wonder his kids are in trouble every other day on this show. I had kind of written off the performance until about midway through this season when they stage a kind of nostalgia-immersion therapy session for his dad and they share an overwhelming few moments together. Suddenly his casting made sense.

Indeed, it’s the portrait of this oddball family unit — dug into their big, mildewy manor on the far side of town — that really registers, more than any of the stuff with the reportage and conspiracy. (That bit never gains enough steam because there’s no danger here. Home Before Dark won’t kill an adorable child like Paula Prentiss in The Parallax View, so the stakes aren’t ever that high.)

Watching the Liskos just try to be a family, dealing with friend fallouts, personal betrayals and a dying grandfather? That stuff is all aces. I went into this season (after its not-especially-inspired debut) looking to just get it over with, but I ended up getting sucked in.

That feeling of familiarity I mentioned? It works in more ways than one. I’m finally getting invested in some of these shows a year into covering them for Cult of Mac. And that, my friends, is not nothing.

*a previous version of this review incorrectly stated how much younger Hilde Lysiak was then her colleagues in the SPJ.

Home Before Dark Season two on Apple TV+

Home Before Dark season 2 premieres on June 11.

Rated: TV-14

Watch on: Apple TV+

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.