First look Apple TV+ review: Little Voice
Ivan Radford | On 12, Jul 2020
“I think my stuff feels, I don’t know… earnest?” That’s Bess (Brittany O’Grady) near the start of Little Voice, a drama about a young singer-songwriter trying to find her way in life, let alone the music biz. She’s not wrong: her songs do feel earnest, not least because they’re written by Sara Bareilles. Bareilles reteams with showrunner Jessie Nelson for the series, after the pair worked together on the musical Waitress. Much like that lip-smacking treat, it’s a show that wears its heart on its sleeve – while wearing a jaunty hat.
Bess is a musician who lives in New York and is trying to make her dreams of breaking into the industry a reality. By day, she balances multiple occupations, including walking dogs, teaching music and working in a bar. It’s the latter place that gives her an opening, as she muscles her way into performing a set uninvited – and it doesn’t go well, as her lack of confidence sabotages any chance she has at winning over a crowd.
That’s the central challenge for Little Voice: pairing together the nervous, naive Bess with the songs she writes (in reality penned by Bareilles). It’s a pairing that doesn’t always work, as the show either tries to over-explain the songwriting process with explicit inspiration and literal lines of dialogue becoming lyrics or it under-explains the assembling that goes into the layered end product from Bareilles’ seasoned pro. It’s less a question of how the songs get composed and more how natural they feel.
When the balance does feel natural, though, it’s a delight. One sequence, where Bess rehearses with guitarist Samuel (Colton Ryan), captures the thrill of making music, especially with someone else, and finds an organic way for her composition to evolve and grow. Their partnership sparks with chemistry that’s both musical and emotional, with Ryan’s nice-guy charm and gentle encouragement complementing O’Grady’s anxious presence.
It’s a shame, then, that the show also introduces Ethan (Sean Teale) as a love interest. Working on a film in the unit next to Bess, where she practises her music, they have a meet-cute that’s less convincing than Samuel’s entry into her life. Ethan is joined by some other familiar notes, such as her brother, Louie (the fantastic Kevin Valdez), who loves musicals, and her father (Chuck Cooper) who has his own musical history, not to mention past demons to shrug off.
These supporting character stock types all have potential to develop into something more rounded and nuanced, in particular Bess’ best friend, Prisha (Shalini Bathina), who is struggling with coming out to her parents. How, exactly, Bess and Prisha can afford their rental apartment falls into the “convenient” playlist, alongside the sheer number of musicians Bess encounters across the city.
But O’Grady’s likeable performance, and the quality songwriting from Bareilles, help to carry you through the occasionally uneven opening episodes. Throughout lies an earnestness that may alienate some but is crucial to giving the series its inspirational tone. If the link between Bess and her music doesn’t always feel as natural as it could be, that’s something to earnestly hope for.
Little Voice: Episode 1 to 3 are available on Apple TV+, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription, with a seven-day free trial. New episodes arrive on Fridays.