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A Little Star-Studded Horror with 'Calls'
March 19, 2021  | By David Hinckley
 


You won't see a stranger use of television this year than the new Apple TV+ series Calls, whose ten episodes begin streaming Friday.

Calls at first feels like anti-television. The early episodes, which run 14-19 minutes each, feature no faces, just voices. As the title suggests, these voices are making telephone calls, for which the only visual on the screen is a line that pulses up and down with electronic images and sounds, like a heart monitor.

Making things stranger, the voice cast includes more than a dozen actors whose faces are well-known: Lily Collins, Danny Pudi, Riley Keough, Nick Jonas, Mark Duplass, Judy Greer, Jennifer Tilley, Rosario Dawson, Karen Gillan, and, well, you get the idea.

While absent any visuals of note, the focus turns to the conversations, most of which can safely be called disturbing.

Some simply tell a familiar tale of bad human behavior, like a man abandoning his pregnant wife. Others seem to have a dimension of supernatural horror, though we only hear screams and silence. Absent visual confirmation, it's not always easy for viewers to know what's happening, which is often the case for the characters conducting the conversations.

Where's FaceTime when we need it?

The calls at first seem random until small connective threads seem to emerge, and these disturbing stories and situations come together in ways that may not be conducive to a restful night's sleep.

Hiring all these talented actors, even if we don't see their faces, turns out to have been a smart move by Timothée Hochet, the French writer who created the series and produced an earlier version for French television.

The stories take their resonance and inflection from the vocal skill of the actors, and most of the performances are strong.

It's not completely unlike listening to a podcast or a vintage radio drama. Or the radio itself, for that matter, because much of the theater has to take place in the viewer's, or listener's, mind.

Because the episodes are relatively short, it's both tempting and feasible to binge a series of them. While binging isn't always the best way to enjoy a series, in this case, it strengthens the threads. The calls themselves are different enough that they don't run together in the listener's mind.

When someone talks about stretching the traditional boundaries of television, Calls could become Exhibit A. But the goal of building tension and suspense isn't revolutionary at all and Calls nails that part. Viewers/listeners don't know if they're headed for redemption, resolution, or a train wreck.

That makes Calls an intriguing way to spend an evening. It's probably not the future of television, but as an outlier unbound by conventional notions such as TV being a visual medium, it's a reminder that, in the end, what still matters most is spinning a good yarn.

 
 
 
 
 
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