3 out of 5
Created by: Holden Miller & Daniel C. Connolly
covers season 1
Coming directly off of Amazon’s Outer Range, that the site’s streaming platform’s next sci-fi entry – Night Sky – was being called underwhelming was… not very promising. The former show seemed to have an initially better reception than Sky, and would have barely rated it as underwhelming; if the general consensus wasn’t being swayed by whatever opening magics the latter show failed to cast, then perhaps I’d at least not be wooed into staying the whole runtime for little payoff.
There are some surface similarities, with the focus on an older couple – here, a husband and wife played by J.K. Simmons and Sissy Spacek – and an oddity which the duo faces, which is presented without much explanation – for Night Sky, that’s an apparent universe-traveling capsule in the couple’s cellar, which is much more mundane than it sounds. However, the show also has immediate differences, setting it far apart: the script, often written or co-written by one or both co-creators, Holden Miller & Daniel C. Connolly, isn’t afraid to be talky, foregoing Outer Range’s cryptic crassness for actual conversations and characters, thankfully allowing its fantastic leads to actually wholly use their skills; secondly, the concept that Range toys with, to shape its central conceit such that some kind of grander commentary or social observation is involved, isn’t just a concept in Night Sky – it’s indulged. Irene (Spacek) and Franklin (Simmons) have faced a tragedy in their past, which we’re able to piece together through flashbacks to their ideal wooing, and marriage ,and the birth of their son, compared to the rather sedate quiet of their current existence. Happy together, but still; the stillness of aging: Irene, once a teacher, alights into engagement now and then but is otherwise rather absent, often not eating and needing a cane or wheelchair to move about; Franklin goes through the motions of bristling his mustache and being angry at neighbors, but struggles without the once more active mental and emotional stimulations of his wife, and has started to show signs of forgetfulness. As they’re fading into the seemingly forced obscurity of old age, they have this respite in their cellar: walk into a chamber, close the door, and after an odd sensation, the door opens into a small room with a window that looks out to an alien night sky, a landscape as though on a different planet…
Irene takes solace here, spending as many nights there as possible; Franklin worries how much stock she puts into this location, when, after hundreds of visits, it’s never provided any more than a nice view. There’s also a door that leads out to the planet’s surface… that the two have always been too scared to go through.
Because we’ve stepped into the York’s lives quite after this discovery, we’re not subjected to any mystery to it beyond what we attribute. I found this to be a brilliant way to “crack” the story – to not withhold anything that isn’t known to Irene and Franklin from their points of view, and to set what we’re experiencing after-the-fact in almost all regards; imagine having this wild discovery that is now a “normal” part of your life, and a life that the world seems to be telling you is in its final chapters. Meanwhile, the couple goes about their day of mild chores and errands; reminders to take pills; casual conversations on good memories. I suppose this came across to others as slow, but the script’s general respect for the couple, and the abilities of our actors, made it fascinating to watch, especially with this extra metaphorical sci-fi layer added in.
Of course, there are some other things happening: a mother and daughter (Julieta Zylberberg and Rocío Hernández) in Argentina seem to have some tie-ins to the York’s chamber, and their awareness of this has required a solitary lifestyle; the comparison of this younger twosome, in a much different social orientation, is equally fascinating. However, though the actors are quite perfect, bringing the same depth to their roles as Simmons and Spacek, the script treats their part in the plot much more cagily, and with less time. The generally casual tone of the series prevents this from being an obnoxious tease, though, and it’s an interesting aside when we spend time with them. Back with the Yorks, events happen independently with Irene and Franklin such that they both start keeping some secrets regarding the chamber; while this does fall into the stereotypical bucket of “I’m not telling you to protect you” TV secret-keeping, the throughlines to each character’s arcs actually make sense, and strengthen the themes of needing to find relevance later in life.
Now, for the vast majority of this, the Whys of the chamber are never really broached. There’s some weakness regarding this, with obvious questions that aren’t asked or pursued, but on the whole, I didn’t mind – Night Sky seemed to truly want this to be a character story, and I was willing to give it wiggle room on specifics as it continued to follow through on that.
But, y’know, it didn’t quite follow through with that.
Odd terms and little quirks start to pop up past the midway point, and starting about episode 7 of the 8, characters start to act straight up silly: we’re rocketing towards explanations (or cliffhangers, likely, if there’s bait for a season 2, and spoiler: there is.), and shortcutting all of that character growth as a result. While I think the main metaphor and themes can be tracked, it’s now way secondary to escalating events, with all of those more easily ignorable logic gaps becoming, like, not ignorable.
To compare once more to Outer Range, while I was essentially hate-watching that to completion, astonished at how little of anything it did effectively, Night Sky at least remained interesting, just disappointing on what I considered its main strengths. While the focus changed, that new focus was compelling enough, although the two episodes in which its given primacy is not enough, meaning a ridiculous amount is left on the table for that let-the-ratings-bless-us season 2 bait.
And I’ll be back, for sure, though I hope we’re allowed to return to less mystery-boxed times, when two great actors were carrying us through a sci-fi dusted character drama.