The release and success of shows like “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” define TV today. Their groundbreaking work makes it apparent that a show needs to bring something unique to the table to stay on air — unexpected character development, unique styles of dialogue, engaging plots.
“Calls” from Apple TV+ definitely fits the description of something we haven’t on television before. Created by Fede Álvarez (“The Girl in the Spider’s Web”), “Calls” centers around the lives of numerous characters living in a mysterious and supernatural world. In each anthological episode, there are elements of either magic, time travel or apocalypse. The catch: The show is presented exclusively through telephone conversations between its characters, and there is no traditional cinematography. The series’ visual components consist solely of subtitles and abstract graphic designs.
The first 13-minute episode of the series, titled “The End,” focuses on three characters — Sara (Karen Gillan, “The Call of the Wild”), a nurse living in New York City, Tim, her adulterous boyfriend (Nicholas Braun, “Succession”), who has lived in Los Angeles for several months and his manager and mistress, Camila (Lily Collins, “Emily in Paris”). Throughout the episode, Tim talks to both of his girlfriends as they share ambiguous but disastrous anecdotes about the collapsing world around them, including attacks from amorphous creatures that resemble their own significant others.
Much more captivating is the 18-minute second episode “The Beginning,” which follows a man named Mark (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, “Tenet”), who has hit the road after learning that his wife, Rose (Riley Keough, “The Devil All the Time”) is pregnant. As the episode progresses, we come to understand that Mark is stuck in time, much like one of the plotlines from “The Cave of Time.” Mark makes what to him seem like frequent calls within about an hour to his mother (Jennifer Tilly, “7 Days to Vegas”), and his best friend, Andy (Ben Schwartz, “Space Force”), but in reality, these calls are spaced out over many years.
The most noteworthy aspect of the series is also its most contentious: the lack of any real visuals. As a matter of fact, the only onscreen features are the names of each character on the phone, their dialogue and graphic designs that look like they could have been single-handedly developed by a talented middle schooler. It seems that the writers made this choice to allow for more emphasis on the mystery of the story — we only have the actors’ voices.
Because we are unable to see what is going on in the world of “Calls,” we know even less about its already enigmatic nature. Additionally, without visuals, we can only judge the series off of its writing and acting. The plot of “The End” is fairly stereotypical of the apocalypse genre, but strong performances from Gillan and Braun make the episode modestly enjoyable.
On the other hand, the best part of “The Beginning” is how it plays with time, engrossing the audience with its stressful circumstances. We don’t know how or why Mark is stuck in time, or why he is so hesitant to turn his car around. But this sense of confusion enhances the viewing (or, rather, listening) experience.
Nevertheless, it feels as though the writers were still trying too hard to stand out by not including conventional footage. The result is an undeniable lack of immersion. Without any action on-screen, viewers might be inclined to check their phones or do chores while listening to “Calls,” and therefore gaining very little from it. The show’s mystifying elements would still work just as well with abstract cinematography and editing.
“Calls” has proven that it is more than just a gimmick show. However, several deficiencies in its storylines, and the questionable choice to include absolutely no film, ultimately hold it back from realizing its full potential.
Daily Arts Writer Aidan Harris can be reached at email@example.com.