A curly-haired young female protagonist with expressively full eyebrows and artistic ambitions. A New York City setting. A pair of suitors, each achingly perfect for her in his own way. And J.J. Abrams among the executive producers. …No, the new AppleTV+ dramedy Little Voice is not exactly Felicity. But it might fit a Felicity-shaped hole in your heart.
Co-created by Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson, re-teaming after their collaboration on Broadway’s Waitress, Little Voice stars Brittany O’Grady as Bess. She lives with her best friend Prisha (Shalini Bathina), who plays in an all-female mariachi band and reluctantly goes on dates arranged by her loving but pushy Indian-immigrant parents (Sakina Jaffrey and Samrat Chakrabarti). Bess compulsively writes soulful pop songs but is too scared to perform them for an audience since a bad experience at an open-mic. But she does sing for the joy of it — to soothe her Broadway-loving brother Louie (Kevin Valdez), or joining in when she finds her father Percy (Chuck Cooper) busking with his a cappella quartet.
Bess is working on a song in the storage unit she’s tricked out as a low-fi studio when she’s interrupted by her new neighbor, Ethan (Sean Teale), a director who’s turned his unit into a video post-pro facility. They get to know each other over snacks and Scrabble, and when he later finds her at the bar where she works, just as a musical act falls out, she impetuously decides to take the slot — in the process crossing paths with Samuel (Colton Ryan), a guitarist who helps her set up and says he’ll be rooting for her. Bess chokes again… then gets offstage, where Ethan introduces her to his girlfriend Laila (Ismenia Mendes). Bess pushes past that disappointment: she’s rekindled her commitment to her music career.
As one would expect of a show Bareilles co-created, Bess’s life as an artist drives much of the show’s plot. Bareilles wrote or co-wrote a hefty EP’s worth of original songs for Bess to début over the course of the season, mirroring events in her life. The show has, perhaps, an overly romantic idea of how an aspiring musician could support herself in present-day New York; even with half a dozen day jobs and a roommate, no real-life Bess in the city can afford an apartment as gigantic as the one we see, never mind a storage unit as cozy as a coffee house besides. That said, this is a light romance; no one’s tuning in for a Sean Baker-esque deep dive on Bess’s finances. Bareilles and Nelson save their grimmest realism for Bess’s experiences in the music industry, like the predatory studio engineer (Luke Kirby) who has expectations for how grateful Bess should be for his help getting her meetings with record label reps. Then there’s the reps themselves, who either like her voice but not her songs; or her songs but not her voice; or think she’s great but have no idea how they’d possibly market her folky acoustic throwback sound.
The show also portrays how Bess’s talent for songwriting may derive from her gift for sensitive observation: we often see her notice as even a tiny gesture boosts, or wounds. In the series premiere, for instance, Bess gets a call from the counselor at the supportive housing unit Louie’s newly moved into, because he’s out past his curfew. Bess finds him at the stage door at Aladdin, and witnesses the moment he makes a minor cast member’s week after she’s just made it onstage for the first time in years. Bess also makes it a point to try to draw out a catatonic resident (June Squibb) at the seniors’ home where she works, never seeing anyone else spending time with her. When Bess finds out that she’s failed to observe something pretty important about one of her closest loved ones, she’s deeply rattled.
One of Nelson and Bareilles’s best choices is not to weigh the early episodes down with a lot of exposition, but instead to let the viewer discover the show’s people and places organically, and Bess’s relationships all feel effortlessly lived-in. Bess’s tenderness for her father, who’s known to music nerds but who never had the career he should have, shines through their scenes; she lets Percy give her money she knows he can’t really afford because, as we see when she does the same with her friends, she also has more pride than sense. Bess is protective of Louie, who’s on the autism spectrum; one of their sweetest moments comes after she’s walked the Broadway-obsessed Louie to his first shift as an usher at Fiddler On The Roof, and steals inside to watch excitedly as he goes about his business. Having spent their whole lives shielding Louie from life’s harsher realities, Bess is challenged to give him his independence now that he no longer lives with her, and it’s clear they both have learning and growing to do through this new phase of their lives. (Given that Nelson previously wrote the screenplay for I Am Sam, in which the intellectually disabled lead was played by Sean Penn, it’s also notable that she made the choice this time to cast a non-neurotypical character with Valdez, who is on the autism spectrum.)
“Didn’t you say something about a pair of suitors?” Yes, there is also romance. Bess can’t help being drawn to Ethan, her storage unit neighbor, despite the fact that he has a girlfriend. He’s handsome, tall, British, speaks Spanish, keeps telling her he can’t stop thinking about her — Bess is only human! But there’s also Samuel, the musical collaborator who pushes Bess to take risks she might not otherwise consider; who supports her artistic vision; who refuses to let her push him away out of stubbornness; who harmonizes with her beautifully; who’s also very cute; and who doesn’t have a girlfriend. There are so many moments when one point of the love triangle is just creating art, oblivious to the fact that one of the others is just gazing, rapt with a mix of admiration and lust. The yearning, good God, the yearning! It’s intoxicating!
Little Voice is a sweet, warm-hearted show, filled with natural performances and dotted with lovely songs. Its general willingness to leave story threads dangling makes the viewer feel she’s been dropped into a true-ish tale of modern bohemia. And if that’s not enough: the protagonist has a very good dog. She deserves a look even if you’re not sure about anything else.
LItle Voice premieres Friday, July 10 on Apple TV+.