Showrunner Daniel C. Connolly and creator Holden Miller undermined a tender romance with a lackluster, drawn-out mystery.
The first episode of “Night Sky” offers almost enough precision in its pathos to exist on its own. Franklin (JK Simmons) and Irene York (Sissy Spacek) are an aging couple living just outside the small (fictional) town of Farnsworth, Illinois. Irene, a retired English teacher, doesn’t let her declining health affect her good spirits, and Franklin likes to take care of her. Over their many years together, he adjusted his bad habits to improve his life. “Son of a herd of hogs” are the first words out of Franklin’s mouth, as he usually checks his tongue to assuage his wife’s distaste for swearing. She is still correcting her grammar. He smiles when she does.
Their romantic relationship extends to what appears at first glance to be a simple nightly request from Irene: tonight she wants to “see the stars”. Franklin, though less impatient, agrees and helps Irene into her wheelchair, guides her outside and leads her…inside a small shed? Franklin helps her down the stairs, into a lighted underground tunnel, and opens a heavy metal door. From there, a light in the domed chamber flashes, and they are transported to a room with two chairs, a table, and an unobstructed view of an unnamed planet. Irene and Franklin settle in, stare out the floor-to-ceiling window, and enjoy their 856th trip, well, wherever they are.
Too soon for Irene’s liking, they venture home, and the rest of the episode begins to fill in the backstory: a nosy neighbor, a mysterious stranger, a son who died decades too soon. But what works in the Pilot – contrasting Irene’s need to move forward, whether to explore the strange new world or onto the next life, with Franklin’s desire to preserve what they have and to safely spend as much time together as they have left – falls apart during the padded, lightly traced seven hours of tracking. Like too many streaming TV shows that come off as elongated movies, “Night Sky” unleashes its premise on a frustratingly full season.
Chuck Hodes / Amazon Prime Video
At first, it looks like showrunner Daniel C. Connolly and creator Holden Miller are simply pacing their series for an older, more patient audience — rocking sweet, revealing, and minor moments in the Yorks’ marriage. But as the questions slowly pile up and the answers are postponed for no good reason, it becomes clear that “Night Sky” isn’t really about a couple struggling with strenuous end-of-life planning; it’s a mystery box show charted on a tender romantic drama, and it gets rather lazy and tedious at that.
Problems begin to arise as soon as the second episode shifts entirely to another family, this one consisting of a mother and daughter living in Argentina. Stella (Julieta Zylberberg) and her only son, Toni (Rocio Hernández), live a sequestered life in the desert. Toni doesn’t have many friends, and when she secretly invites a boy over, her mother gets upset. Immediately, it’s unclear why Stella would be so upset; Trying to date a boy at 13 is one thing, but simply making friends is another. No explanation for a mother demanding her daughter live in isolation is given, and Stella’s reasoning is held back long enough for the mother-daughter duo to have the same fight over and over again. The audience probably knows why: there’s an old church near their house that Stella protects and cares for, though no one else is allowed inside. Pairing a mysterious backyard retreat with the previously visited location in Illinois will quickly put viewers way ahead of the narrative.
The show never tries to catch up. Remarkably few answers are given in eight hours, partly because some storylines lead nowhere (neighbour’s political aspirations… come to a halt) but also because each character is far too complacent. Toni desperately wants the same answers we do, but as a teenager she’s forced to trot behind her mother, waiting and hoping for an explanation that may never come. Byron (Adam Bartley), the Yorks’ new neighbor, is also impatient, but it takes far too long for him to become part of the main plot. Stella is a brick wall matched only by the obtuse deletion of Jude (Chai Hansen), the mysterious stranger at the center of the story.
Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video
Spacek and Simmons, both Oscar winners, help make even the most dragging bits watchable. As character actors, they’re adept at finding texture and nuance in scenes, working to freshen up interactions and build arcs about honest humanity. I love that Simmons keeps Franklin’s shirt pockets unbuttoned – the mark of a man who works with his hands and treats his clothes as useful tools, not cosmetic accessories. (Franklin, before retiring, was a carpenter by trade.) Spacek could give a moving masterclass. Irene suffers at the beginning of the story, but gradually improves. Spacek does little to draw attention to these developments, letting the script outline the necessary changes, but she experiences them all the same. Every stilted action is a process in the early episodes, while later it regains a modest fluidity. Each actor receives a handful of emotional monologues. Each elicits great significance from just a few glances. They are unquestionably exceptional actors.
But they are still hanging to dry here. There are only so many minor details you can enjoy until you need something major to actually happen, and the development of the main couple languishes in the long hours ahead. “Night Sky” has the bits of moving drama without the substance. After that first hour – which, with acute empathy, compares the ultimate needs of a partner to the needs of each individual – you may be holding back tears. But after seven more hours, your eyes have glazed over, and even those bright stars can’t bring you back to Earth.
Season 1 of “Night Sky” premieres all eight episodes Friday, May 20 on Amazon Prime Video.