Bess (Brittany O’Grady), the singer-songwriter heroine of Apple TV+’s latest series Little Voice, promises her new guitar player Samuel (Colton Ryan) that he’ll learn the origins of one of her songs when she tells it to the crowd at their first gig that night. Samuel warns her against it, explaining, “Everyone in the audience thinks every song is about them, so if you tell them too much, it bursts the bubble. Less is more.”
Bess opts to follow Samuel’s advice, but Little Voice itself remains agnostic about how much it should share regarding what influences her many heartfelt ballads. At times, it couldn’t be more explicit about what inspires a particular tune, or her desire to write and perform in general. At others, it seems to aspire to a pleasant vagueness, as if it wants Bess to be an avatar for the unfulfilled hopes and dreams of everyone in its audience.
Of course, the real answer to the songs’ origins — that they were written by Sara Bareilles, who produces the series along with J.J. Abrams and showrunner Jessie Nelson (who collaborated with Bareilles for the Broadway version of Waitress) — wouldn’t work in the show’s fictional universe, where Bareilles already exists. (She has an amusing cameo in a late episode.) Bareilles penned nearly an album’s worth of material for the show, which proves a double-edged sword. On the one hand, these are excellent Sara Bareilles songs, and thus support the many instances where Samuel, Bess’ friend Benny (Philip Johnson Richardson), her roommate Prisha (Shalini Bathina), or her potential new flame Ethan (Sean Teale) proclaim her a budding genius(*).
(*) Stories about brilliant fictional musicians are generally easier to make believable than stories about hilarious fictional comedians (see every sketch from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) or gifted fictional actors (see any glimpse of one of Vince’s movies on Entourage). But so much of this show hangs on Bess being an undiscovered prodigy that it would fall apart if Bareilles had filled it with numbers she had rightly discarded from old albums.
On the other, every song is so obviously a Bareilles tune that it gets in the way of Nelson’s attempts to establish Bess both as a distinct character and as an artistic work in progress. We sometimes see her creative method, where a moment glimpsed between strangers leads to furious scribbling in her notebook, or when discovering the layers of wallpaper in her apartment prompts her to consider the lives of the women who lived there in decades past. More often than not, though, the songs seem to spring from her mind, fully-formed and ready to go into heavy rotation on SiriusXM’s Coffee House station.
To make this an underdog story rather than a tale of deserved overnight success, then, Nelson and company first have to establish Bess as someone who doesn’t believe in the power of her own very big voice nearly as much as the people around her do. She works a half-dozen different jobs (dog-walking and teaching singing lessons, among others) to afford the rent on both the implausibly huge New York apartment she and Prisha share and the cavernous storage unit she’s tricked out into a recording studio. (Samuel, getting his first look at it: “Damn, you could Airbnb this place!”) Ethan, who edits his documentary footage in the adjacent unit, walks in on her rehearsing one of her compositions, and calls it beautiful. Bess, her own harshest critic, insists, “It’s a piece of shit.” Later, she explains that the last time she tried to perform live, her confidence was crushed by a few drunk hecklers. And when she attempts to step in for a no-show act at the club where she tends bar, her nerves ruin the attempt practically before it starts.
O’Grady, who was one of the leads on Fox’s Empire-adjacent drama Star, has a lovely, clear voice and a winning screen presence that sells both the songs and Bess’ crippling self-doubt. Little Voice is at its most appealing when it gets granular not only with Bess’ songwriting, but the way that her friends and family — including Kevin Valdez as her autistic, theater-crazy older brother Louie, and Chuck Cooper as her doo wop-singing father Percy — help pull her out of her shell. It’s exciting to see Samuel help Bess get through their first show together, for instance, or to see a jaded studio engineer (Luke Kirby, a.k.a. Lenny Bruce on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) completely reassess her after he hears her sing.
But Little Voice wants to tell more than just the story of Bess’ musical rise. There’s her complicated relationship with Louie, who’s just moved into a more independent living situation, and with Percy, whose own disappointing musical career serves as a cautionary tale. There’s a subplot about Prisha resisting her immigrant parents’ attempts to find her a husband, one about Benny coming into his own as Bess’ would-be manager, and another about Bess’ attempt to connect with a near-catatonic woman (June Squibb) at a senior center where she performs show tunes for the residents.
Mostly, though, there is the love triangle among Bess, Samuel, and Ethan, which feels like the most obligatory aspect of the whole show. Samuel is the eager puppy dog who’s always there to support Bess and push her to take risks she wouldn’t on her own, while Ethan is the mysterious stranger with whom Bess can’t help connecting with on a deeper level, no matter how complicated his own personal life is. It’s all pretty stock, even though O’Grady has decent chemistry with both Ryan and Teale. It’s to the creative team’s credit that Bess’ songs for the most part are not motivated by her romantic ups and downs — it treats her art as its own thing, rather than a byproduct of the men in her life — but it also makes those stories less compelling than anything more directly tied to the music. Ethan seems more probable as the show’s relationship endgame, but Samuel has much greater narrative weight as her sideman and collaborator.
With nine episodes all running roughly a half-hour, the series doesn’t overstay its welcome. But it occasionally feels like it’s skipping steps in its main story so it can follow all the others. An early episode is devoted to Bess trying to write a song from scratch in a day to win a contest Benny discovered only hours before its deadline. She of course finishes it on time, because that’s the kind of show this is, but we jump past her getting the big news of her victory, which feels like an important landmark on her road from wallflower to confident artist.
Arriving relatively deep into this pandemic, Little Voice also feels like a love letter to a seemingly ancient New York where live music is everywhere. Prisha performs in an all-female mariachi band, while most of Percy’s income seems to come from singing in subway stations and at parks. Louie loves to belt out show tunes and at one point gets a job as a Broadway usher for Fiddler on the Roof. It’s a welcome flashback in uncertain times, giving the show added emotional heft.
Early on, Bess worries that, “I think my stuff feels, I don’t know, earnest?” Ethan — speaking on behalf of not only her music, but of the show that dramatizes it — replies, “In such a cynical time, I think that takes guts.” Little Voice is upfront about what it is: not just earnest, but charming, and more successful than not at exploring the inner life of a woman who can write songs that sound a lot like they’ve been on the radio for years.
The first three episodes of Little Voice premiere July 10th on Apple TV+, with the additional six episodes premiering each Friday.