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'Little Voice' has a Familiar but Entertaining Theme with Beautiful Songs by Sara Bareilles
July 10, 2020  | By David Hinckley

"Girl tackles the big city" has been a theme of dramas since forever, so it's no surprise that it has quietly emerged as a consistently interesting subgenre in our current ocean of TV programming.

The latest arrival, Jessie Nelson's Little Voice, pops up Friday on Apple TV+ and stars Brittany O'Grady (top) as Bess King, an aspiring singer-songwriter who is finding New York a steep hill even to start climbing.

Take a number, Bess. Or maybe have a comradely chat with your fellow young women from Mozart in the JungleSweetbitterThe Unbreakable Kimmy SchmidtFlesh and Bone, and several other shows peeking into the lives of women who want something more and have chosen a challenging way to get it.

Even Glee sent young folks to New York, although by then, Glee was a little more into stylized drama and a little less into the scrambling and hustling and just plain hard work that characterize the lives of people like Bess King.

The idea of the scrappy underdog has always been a widespread and robust theme in American literature, of course, and in some ways, women like Bess King are simply picking up the mantle of the Horatio Alger heroes, who survived and ultimately thrived through basic decency and a whole lot of pluck.

We embrace women like Bess. We want them to succeed because, among other things, it reinforces the happy idea that in America, you can do that.

Bess King writes self-searching songs, created for this show by Sara Bareilles, who wrote the real-life Broadway hit Waitress. But the one time Bess performed some of them for a live audience, some drunks in the audience heckled her, so she has retreated into only performing safe '80s hits on stage.

Besides doing those "cover" gigs, she leads sing-alongs of tunes like "You Are My Sunshine" at senior centers. She tends bar. She gives music lessons to excruciating 8-year-olds. And she walks dogs.

The dogs, by the way, are extremely cool, a great mix from bulldogs to Bernese Mountain Dogs. Her own dog seems to be a nicely expressive yellow Lab.

It's hard for Bess, or viewers, to see her path forward. Still, she keeps writing, with blind faith that perhaps it will all fall together one day, and she will, at least, get a shot at sharing her art.

Little Voice doesn't frame this as a sad song. The half-hour episodes aren't Kimmy Schmidt-level comedy, but they're a bit lighter than, say, Sweetbitter.

We spend the first couple of episodes getting filled in on the details of Bess's world.

Her father, Percy (Chuck Cooper), still sings in the subways. Her best friend and roommate, Prisha (Shalini Bathina), is fending off her mother's constant matchmaking. Her brother, Louie (Kevin Valdez), seems to be on the autism spectrum and has just started living in a more independent facility.

And of course, there are guys. Ethan (Sean Teale) is a fellow cool artist, a free agent to whom Bess feels an attraction that is clearly shared. Samuel (Colton Ryan) is a guitarist who's totally smitten by Bess and urges her to form a band and get back in the saddle.

The framework gets a little soapy, but like each of the other shows in this genre, Little Voice has its own twists and nuances. O'Grady, who is best known for several seasons on Fox's Star, achieves winsome without ever making us feel sorry for her.

The whole girl-in-New-York concept is interesting because, among other things, it's a counterargument to the hundreds of popular Hallmark movies about how the city crushes souls and young women only discover real happiness when they get back to their small-town roots and values.

Clearly, both scenarios have their fans. The Little Voice scenario has a little more excitement – and a lot of fine songs from Sara Bareilles.

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