A TV show with a talented cast and crew is a lot like a tantalizing poker hand. There's no guarantee that everything is going to turn out the way you want it to, but the ingredients are so good, and the promise of rich rewards so fantastic, that it's hard to walk away from the table. That's how I felt through much of Lisey's Story, the new miniseries on Apple TV+, adapted by Stephen King from his own novel, about the widow (Julianne Moore) of an acclaimed novelist (Clive Owen) who must fend off the scavengers of her husband's legacy and deal with the supernatural realities of his past that she's tried to push away, all while trying to rescue her catatonic sister (Joan Allen) from oblivion. If that already sounds a lot of TV show, a) you're right, and b) I haven't even begun to chip away at the often impenetrable concrete of this show's plot. And yet, with Moore, Owen, and Allen in the cast, Stephen King adapting his own work, plus producer J.J. Abrams and director Pablo Larrain behind the camera, I really didn't want to admit defeat.
I assumed I would be exactly the target audience for a show like Lisey's Story. I grew up reading Stephen King and have a high threshold for his particular brand of Boomer references, self-referential characters, and the kinds of supernatural realms that exist just beyond our perceptions. King himself has stated in the past that Lisey's Story, first published in 2006, is his favorite novel of the ones he's written. That's pretty high regard coming from the author of The Shining, The Stand, and It. King wrote the novel after the event that would come to divide his career into "before" and "after" periods: the June 1999 incident in which he was struck by a van while walking alongside a road and nearly died. With the story's focus on the widow of an incredibly famous novelist who is both a cash cow and attracts unhinged fans, it's not too difficult to draw the line to King's inspiration for the novel.
In this TV adaptation, Julianne Moore plays Lisey Landon — short for "Lisa," something that the show keeps reiterating, to the point where you wonder why they don't just let her be Lisa — who, as the show begins, is a widow still struggling with the loss of her husband, beloved author Scott Landon. Scott is played in flashbacks by Clive Owen, meaning that if nothing else, Lisey's Story is an opportunity for a Children of Men reunion. Director Pablo Larrain, who so memorably directed Natalie Portman's Oscar-nominated performance in Jackie, surrounds Lisey with a lot of literal and metaphorical empty space. We first see her alone in a pool, submerged, and later she stands in a seemingly cavernous room in her home that contains the boxed and binned up written works of her husband. It's these works — and the possibility of unpublished stories or perhaps whole novels of Scott's — that presents the first conflict in Lisey's Story. An academic, Dashmiel, played by This Is Us star Ron Cephas Jones has been trying to get Lisey to relinquish all of Scott's unpublished material so that the literature community can determine of there's anything that can be salvaged. Lisey, through a combination of protective instincts and grief-fueled obstinance at the presumption that she owes the outside world anything of Scott's, refuses. And so Dashmiel outsources the task of convincing Lisey to change her mind to a younger, clearly unhinged fan of Scott's named Jim Dooley (Dane DeHaan).
We're going to put a pin in Dooley because (unfortunately) that's only a small fraction of the story that King wants to tell. The narrative, as all modern-day dramatic TV series must be, is broken up into multiple timelines, with Lisey and her grief in the current one, augmented by numerous threads from Lisey and Scott's marriage, and later from Scott's childhood. The series peels back what we know about Scott — and about his and Lisey's marriage — layer by layer, with all of it filtered through Lisey's memories and her grief. Early on, she flashes back to the groundbreaking of a library where Scott was shot in the chest by a disturbed fan. Initially it feels like one piece of the puzzle, that being Scott's death, has been solved. But then King takes that puzzle piece away; Scott survived the shooting. Lisey recalls the kind of mantra that "the Landons are fast healers." What does that mean, though? How does that pertain to Scott and the increasingly unsettling things Lisey remembers about his life and upbringing? And how does this all connect to Lisey's sister, Amanda, who is lost amid the ravages of her own mental health issues.
Amanda is the third but by no means final thread of Lisey's Story, and she exists as a kind of parallel to Lisey's grief. Amanda has long struggled with depression and self-harm. At the point where we enter the story, she's in a moment of particular crisis, something which both Lisey and their other sister Darla (a spectacularly underutilized Jennifer Jason Leigh) must attend to. We learn that Amanda and Scott shared a secret, supernatural connection to each other, the mystery of which will unlock the door to an entire other realm that Lisey's story wants to explore. By this point, we're about four or five layers deep into the show's mythology, peppered with terms like "bool hunt" (a kind of scavenger hunt game from Scott's childhood that he passed on to Lisey) and "Boo'ya Moon." Those familiar with Stephen King's writing will recognize these kind of folksy, earthy descriptors for supernatural phenomena, but it really works against a show with this dense of a mythology to pepper in so many nonsense-sounding terms. Say what you will about "the Upside Down" in Stranger Things, but it's pretty intuitive language.
When presented with a story that centers Julianne Moore and gives a remarkable actress like Joan Allen such a featured role, you really don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth. But as much as Larrain succeeds in submerging Lisey and Amanda into their own caverns of grief, the performances get lost in the dense thicket of timelines, rules, and secret universes at play in King's story. Even the most straightforward and earthbound of plots — Lisey being terrorized by Jim Dooley — feels overdetermined. Dane DeHaan is a talented young actor who seems to be caught in a feedback loop of typecasting where he's asked to play ever more haunted and unhinged misfits (we had a chance to change the narrative on DeHaan if we'd all seen and supported Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, but nobody is ready for that conversation yet, and now I'm getting lost in a dense thicket of digression). He is entirely too much as the psychotic, misogynistic, violent Dooley, ultimately suffocating what could have been a more sharply observed story about how women and wives are treated by the communities who revere great male artists.
There's some comfort to be taken in the fact that, as misses go, Lisey's Story misses big. It doesn't tiptoe to the line of King's otherworldly fiction but rather crashes past the borders, dragging its bewildered audience with it. Whether there was a more comprehensible version of Lisey's Story, perhaps in a misty alternate dimension just outside our own, is something we'll never know, but perhaps in our world, we can gather Julianne Moore, Joan Allen, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Pablo Larrain for another little bool hunt of their own sometime soon.
Lisey's Story premieres on Apple TV+ Friday June 4th, with new episodes dropping Fridays through mid-July.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.