Before Star Wars and Star Trek and Super 8 and Lost and Alias — before, in other words, he became synonymous with producing and directing some of the most highly valued genre properties in popular culture — J.J. Abrams made his first big footprint on television creating a little show for the WB about a college freshman who followed her unrequited high-school crush to college in New York City. Felicity launched the career of Keri Russell, whose sweet and sensitive indecisiveness proved so bewitching (and whose gorgeous mane of curly hair probably meant a little too much to people), but it also launched Abrams on a trajectory that has never really stopped rising.
Looking back, the decidedly earthbound adventures of Felicity Porter at the fictional University of New York in the heady days of the late '90s have only felt more peculiar in light of Abrams' other projects. Despite Russell herself showing up in several of his later projects, it's otherwise hard to draw a direct line from Felicity to The Rise of Skywalker. But with Little Voice, the new TV series he's producing for Apple TV+, Abrams — who co-created the series with Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson — has sort of come home again.
The idea to return to Felicity-style subject matter didn't actually originate with Abrams but with Bareilles, the successful singer-songwriter who, along with Nelson, wrote the songs and the book for the Broadway adaptation of Waitress. After the huge success of that show, Abrams wanted to meet with Bareilles, who told him how much she'd loved Felicity and would love to do that kind of a show, only with a singer-songwriter at the center.
Little Voice stars Brittany O'Grady (Black Christmas) as Bess King, an aspiring singer/songwriter living in New York City, working a handful of pay-the-rent jobs like dog-walking, bartending, and giving piano lessons to rich kids, while trying to work up the nerve to make it happen as a musical artist. She's the type who goes around all day with her lyric notebook close at hand, although in a pinch she'll scrawl potential lyrics on scraps of paper and stuff them in her pocket. She's sweet, soulful, and kind, and with Grammy-winning and Tony-nominated Bareilles writing the songs for the show, she delivers some incredibly pretty music. Bareilles's music is an uncannily perfect fit for a TV show about this kind of character, one so attuned to her own hopefulness and secret frustrations, and Little Voice takes that advantage and runs with it.
So what's holding Bess back? Well, it's not like opportunities to become a hit singer-songwriter are just falling off of the backs of trucks, even in the decently glossy world of J.J. Abrams' New York. Bess is plagued by insecurity, for one thing, unable to take the stage and perform without letting a disinterested audience completely throw her. But as the series goes on, we see Bess has other things tugging at her, specifically her caretaker role for her father (Chuck Cooper) — from whom she obviously gets her singing voice, who now makes his money as a subway crooner and hides his drinking problem — and her autistic older brother Louie (Kevin Valdez), who is still acclimating to his more independent living situation.
Little Voice is at its best and most affecting when it explores these familial relationships. O'Grady and Valdez share a great sibling chemistry, and Louie's Broadway enthusiasm — and how Bess shares a bond with him on that level — is beyond charming. Meanwhile, the scenes of Bess harmonizing with her dad and his singing group are some of the most melt-into-your-chair beautiful moments of the show. There's also a very engaging subplot involving Bess's best friend Prisha (Shalini Bathina) and her struggle to come out to her conservative Indian parents.
Less successful is the show's love triangle, which feels perfunctory and is the only place where Little Voice strains to conform to the Felicity formula. Ethan (Sean Teale) is an aspiring filmmaker whose storage-unit workspace is adjacent to Bess', and their initial attraction ends up getting complicated by some of the more standard TV romance obstacles you can imagine. Samuel (Colton Ryan) is the cute backup musician who plays at the bar where Bess works, and their professional collaboration at least sells you on why Bess would be so into him. But Samuel gets shoved into the back-seat "nice guy" role, which feels not only retrograde but frustrating.
Otherwise, Little Voice doesn't seem to worry so much about all the ways it's NOT Felicity. That series — while refreshingly earnest and deeply likeable — was decidedly soapy in its plotting. Felicity Porter was an economically comfortable white girl from Palo Alto who was able to go to a not-inexpensive (if we extend the NYU comparisons to their logical end) university clear across the country and then change her major TWICE because she felt like it, and whose weekend job at Dean and DeLuca kept her palatial living spaces decently well-appointed. Bess is not that girl, and the show neither strains to make her that girl, nor does it seem all that pressed to prove she's the opposite. But that likable earnestness and sense of potential being strangled by reticence and self-doubt? That's all there.
Little Voice takes a bit to get going. It's got an incredibly low-key pilot, and its charms are humble and come on like a slow burn. What more than keeps it afloat, until those character relationships have their hooks into you, are Bareilles' songs, which thread their way through as lyrics floating from Bess's intent scribbles, serving as mood signifiers throughout each episode (all nine episodes share a title with a different song), and which can all stand confidently alone while still working seamlessly with the show. If you've ever been even a little charmed by Sara Bareilles's music, you owe it to yourself to give Little Voice a look (and listen).
Little Voice drops Friday, July 10th on Apple TV+.
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.