While hosting the 2018 Tony Awards, Sara Bareilles self-deprecatingly joked that she makes music you might hear at a Starbucks or in a hotel elevator. Although that sort of “easy listening” descriptor isn’t really a fair summation of Bareilles’ melodic Grammy- and Tony-nominated discography, it’s a more apt metaphor for the new Apple TV+ series she co-created and executive-produced. As a coming-of-age tale of twentysomething creative passion, Little Voice is watchable enough, especially since its episodes all hover around the 30-minute mark. But as Little Voice strives to introduce an earnest new voice to the TV landscape, it often struggles to rise above the level of amiable background music.
The series centers on Bess King (Star’s Brittany O’Grady), an aspiring singer-songwriter who works six jobs just to make ends meet in New York City. In between walking dogs, serving drinks, and singing at retirement homes, she scribbles lyrics on whatever scraps of paper she has at hand. Bess isn’t lacking for creative inspiration; she just has a problem with confidence. Although she’d like to consider herself a cross between Alessia Cara and Carole King, she’s haunted by the drunken boos she received when she debuted her own original material. But with the help of an almost pathologically supportive group of friends and fellow creatives, Bess finally starts to realize that her “little voice” might actually be worth hearing.
Tonally, Little Voice sits somewhere between the grimy realism of Girls and the feel-good fantasia of The Bold Type. On the quirky side, Bess writes music in a storage unit “studio” she’s decorated like an Anthropologie store. A dreamy British filmmaker named Ethan (Sean Teale) has improbably done the same next door, giving the show one leg of its central love triangle. Also competing for Bess’ affection is her sweet, supportive guitarist, Samuel (Colton Ryan). Yet in addition to its lighter romantic dramedy aims, Little Voice also delves into heavier material about abuse, self-sabotage, identity, alcoholism, sexual harassment in the music industry, and even violent hate crimes.
Music is the lifeblood of the series and the fulcrum point for its diverse coming-of-age themes. (Though J.J. Abrams serves as an executive producer, think Felicity rather than Lost.) Barellis penned nine original songs for Bess, all of which allow O’Grady to bring her pure vocal tone to Bareilles’ soulful style. Working with co-creator and former Waitress collaborator Jessie Nelson (Corrina, Corrina; I Am Sam), Bareilles also celebrates the diverse musical landscape of New York City. Little Voice showcases everything from street buskers and classical cellists to Broadway musicals and an all-female mariachi band. In the vein of many an early aughts show, Bess works at a club that provides ample opportunity to highlight a rotating cast of talented musicians.
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. The seventh episode, “Ghost Light,” uses a theatrical technique to captivatingly dramatize the songwriting process as Bess takes inspiration from layers of wallpaper and writes a song about past residents of her apartment. Little Voice also finds compelling drama as Bess butts up against the commercial side of the music industry, which doesn’t quite know how to package her. One of the series’ most cutting moments comes when a music exec backhandedly praises her sound as “darling.” Bess muses that she should’ve been born 50 years ago, when earnestness, not cynicism, was in vogue.
Yet 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.
There’s both too much and not enough to Little Voice. Still, the show’s good intentions, catchy tunes, and likable young cast smooth over some of the rough spots, particularly as the season progresses. In fact, it’s a shame Apple TV+ is releasing episodes weekly, as this series is better suited to an afternoon binge watch. Like its heroine, Little Voice is still finding itself. But by the season finale, the show finally starts to crescendo into something with promise.