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Sara Bareilles' Little Voice is too ambitious, but its good intentions, catchy tunes, and likable young cast smooth over some of the rough spots

  • The Apple TV+ musical dramedy that Bareilles created with her Waitress collaborator Jessie Nelson, executive produced by J.J. Abrams and starring Brittany O’Grady as aspiring singer-songwriter Bess King, offers both too much and not enough, says Caroline Siede. "In its best moments, Little Voice captures the enthusiastic, can-do spirit of young creatives—like the way a small-budget music video shoot achieves its coolest shot thanks to a surrey bicycle, a push cart, and some helpful friends," says Siede. Yet, she adds, "there’s a toughness to Bess as well. As she attempts to climb the music industry ladder, she’s continually pulled back down to Earth by family complications. Her Broadway-obsessed brother, Louie (Kevin Valdez, who, like his character, is autistic), has recently moved into an independent living center, which is a big adjustment for the close-knit siblings. Meanwhile, her loving, musically gifted father, Percy (Chuck Cooper), has demons of his own. Ever since her mom walked out on them, Bess has been the self-sacrificing glue holding her family together. And she’s so defined herself by her ability to do it all that she bristles when her friends offer to take something off her overcrowded plate. Unfortunately, the earnest and stubborn sides of Bess never quite cohere. She too often comes across as confusingly erratic rather than compelling contradictory, and Little Voice can’t quite justify why everyone in Bess’ life is so eager to drop everything to help make her reluctant dreams come true. (It sometimes seems like every single supporting character is in love with her.) The premiere starts things off on an awkward foot by making Bess so uncomfortable at performing that it genuinely seems like she should just find a different career. And while future episodes correct course, O’Grady’s likable presence isn’t enough to make up for the uneven way her character is written. It doesn’t help that Little Voice piles on more storylines than the nine-episode season can handle, bouncing between Bess’ career, love life, and family obligations, while delivering substantial subplots for Louie and Bess’ conflicted-in-love roommate, Prisha (Shalini Bathina). At times these disparate stories of young adulthood coalesce beautifully, as in the affecting third episode “Dear Hope,” in which Bess tries to reconcile her inherent optimism with the cruelty of the world. Elsewhere, however, Little Voice’s ambitious narrative aims just start to feel unwieldy."


    • Little Voice has a flair for turning the creative process, something that is generally internal, into something dynamic and visually arresting: "Every time I could feel my eyeballs starting to roll back in their sockets, something in Little Voice would compel them to return to their default, straight-ahead setting," says Jen Chaney. "While it may not be realistic, the New York City imagined by the series emits such an inviting, warm glow, it’s as though the whole place has been illuminated by fireflies and bistro lights. (Brittany) O’Grady, who should be at the top of the casting list if a Norah Jones biopic is ever made, is a captivating presence and does a believable job of capturing Bess in her fragile moments and her stubborn ones, even when the scripts require her to make those shifts a bit too abruptly. The canvas of characters the series casts is also admirably and organically inclusive, with representation of the disabled as well as people of a variety of races, ethnicities, ages, and sexual orientations."
    • Little Voice is a pop show in the form of a song: "In recording-studio terms, one would say that the needle on the emotional VU meter is pegged to the right, in the red; the volume is turned way up here, even when the performance itself is whispery and crafted to sound casual," says Robert Lloyd. "Like the music that Bess/Bareilles makes, it builds something big out of small feelings, and something small out of big ones — the intimate moment pitched to the back row of the theater. It can be a little wearing over the seasonal long haul, but it is true in its way to our sentimental experience and why nothing succeeds in working us up, and working us over, quite like a pop song."
    • Little Voice at least acknowledges its own crowd-pleasing tendencies: "Little Voice is not, on the surface, anything like Friends, but it weds the mechanics of that kind of glib New York sitcom with the grittier, but still fanciful, aesthetic of John Carney’s musical films like Once — dressing up the former, but not capturing much of the energy or the spirit of the latter," says Mike Hale. "In the show’s vision of the city, musical talent is everywhere, and wherever Bess goes, people are busking. Sidewalk? Guy playing a grand piano. Central Park? Guy drumming on plastic pails. Subway platform? Old guys singing R&B. In fairness, this fairy-tale ambience is intrinsic to the show, and you may find it charming in its own right. But the story elements Bareilles and Nelson provide over the nine-episode season (three will be available Friday) don’t have enough originality or energy to get you sufficiently invested in the fantasy."
    • It's cutesy, kooky – and totally unwatchable: "Much of each half-hour episode is spent following Bess through the (gorgeously shot) streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn as she scribbles in her notebook; is alternately inspired or crushed by the gifts of the street musicians she passes every 100 yards on her way to teaching piano to talentless rich kids; holds singalongs at retirement homes; and waitresses at a club, gazing longingly at the stage and wishing that there were some way she could overcome her Grand Humiliation," says Lucy Mangan. "Which is failing to 'go over' at a previous attempt to share her musical gift with a non-paying audience at a bar a while back. It’s all of a piece with the enduringly low-stakes feel of the series."
    • Little Voice is a throwback to a time when TV was rife with earnest dramedies about talented young women trying to protect their bleeding hearts: "In a time of marathoning shows, the aggressive sincerity of Little Voice could backfire," says Caroline Framke. "But with nine episodes running a half-hour each, the show is generally smart about how much it leans into its sentimentality, which ultimately befits its unabashedly enthusiastic characters. Sometimes it’s subtle; often it’s not; mostly, it’s heartfelt."
    • Sara Bareilles cites Felicity, which J.J. Abrams created with Matt Reeves, as the biggest inspiration for Little Voice: "My college years were spent in deep devotion to one of JJ's shows, Felicity," she says. "I just love that show so much and I always felt like, as a young woman, it would be interesting to see what would the stories be of Felicity as a songwriter; if there was a way to marry those ideas."
    • Bareilles on the origin of the "Little Voice" song: "Well, I'll leave it mildly ambiguous, but it wasn't my record label," she says. "But I was trying to write a theme song for this show and I couldn't quite crack the code. Then I remembered this song had been sitting here forever – 15 years now – and I hesitated to bring it up (to Jessie Nelson) initially, because I was imprinted with the insecurity from getting feedback that it wasn't strong enough for the record. So I was like, "Oh, this probably just isn't a good song." But I just love that's the story of this song coming back to life. It's so embedded in the themes of this show: trusting your instincts, believing in yourself and taking big swings on your own behalf."
    • Bareilles on making Waitress for Broadway vs. Little Voice for TV: "Oh my God. It’s so funny," she says. "When I was making Waitress, I was like, 'This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.' And now that I’ve done this, I’m like, 'This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.' Every new thing I do, I feel like I am schooled all over again. With television, the thing I was not used to is the pace and the voracious appetite of the show as a whole. You have to have a lot of material, a lot of storyline and a lot of music, and there are so many moving parts, and the logistics are so challenging with television. Because so much of what we shot was on location (in Manhattan), too. So there was just a lot of physicality and logistical and… oh my God, everything that could’ve gone wrong went wrong. So it was just like one challenge after another. This project felt really, really big. So when we got to our last day of shooting, there was such a sense of gratification because it takes such an army to create something on this scale. And this isn’t even a particularly big show in the world of big TV shows."

    TOPICS: Little Voice, Apple TV+, Brittany O’Grady, Jessie Nelson, J.J. Abrams, Sara Bareilles

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