Calls review: Derivative storytelling undermines Apple TV+’s novel alternative to podcast adaptations

Calls is an adaptation of the CANAL+ French series created by Timothée Hochet. It's the fiction podcast transitioning into a new form of audio-visual narrative. Over 9 episodes, each around 15-20 minutes in length, stories of strange phenomena unfold all of which are transcribed over minimal graphics on screen.

Prahlad Srihari March 19, 2021 12:02:31 IST
Calls review: Derivative storytelling undermines Apple TV+’s novel alternative to podcast adaptations

Rewind the clock to a time when audiences gathered around the radio to listen to tales of horror and suspense. That is before Orson Welles decided he would make movies instead. Fede Álvarez's new project on Apple TV+ marks a return to the medium of radio dramas, but in a slight reinvention for the streaming era. Nine episodes tell nine short stories of characters dealing with unexplained phenomena, which may all be connected to a looming doomsday event. Each around 15-20 minutes in length, the stories unfold through phone calls, voicemails and text messages, all of which are transcribed over minimal graphics on screen. Behind the voices are a host of notable faces: Aubrey Plaza, Nick Jonas, Riley Keough, Pedro Pascal, Lily Collins, Rosario Dawson, Mark Duplass, Karen Gillan, Judy Greer, Joey King, Nicholas Braun, Danny Pudi among others. 

Calls is an adaptation of the CANAL+ French series created by Timothée Hochet. So, it’s not exactly breaking new ground here. It's the fiction podcast transitioning into a new form of audio-visual narrative. If the medium of film invites us to believe the images we see, the audio drama draws on our power of imagination to create those images. The idea behind Calls is the nightmares already in our heads are hell of a lot more scarier than any monster conjured up on screen. For the mind is susceptible to suggestion, and ripe for manipulation.

Day-to-day scenarios turn into mind-bending mysteries with multi-dimensional implications. A story of a couple on the verge of break-up ends in "If you're on the phone with me, who's in my bed?" horrors. A man abandons his pregnant wife but finds himself trapped in a temporal paradox when he tries to undo his mistake. In an attempt to speak to her late mother one last time, a young woman ends up putting her brother in mortal danger. There's nothing too novel about the premises of these stories. They scratch a similar itch as Twilight Zone or Fringe, and tread fertile if familiar territory of sci-fi horror past. The novelty lies in their presentation.

Besides phone calls, the audio recordings come from a variety of other sources: 911 calls, answering machines, the black box retrieved from a plane crash, etc. The strategic use of white noise, network disturbances and call drops build tension. Perhaps, this is why the show is best enjoyed with noise-cancelling headphones. It messes with our sense of localisation. Furthermore, the absence of characters, settings or any real-life images renders the source of our fears elusive. This helps immerse us in the soundscape designed to isolate our imagination, where it's easy to let the voices and the power of suggestion turn the stories into little films in our heads. The voice acting is top-notch across the board. According to their intonation, the scenes are drawn in our imagination, the words get fleshed out, and the characters come alive.

Calls review Derivative storytelling undermines Apple TVs novel alternative to podcast adaptations

On screen are the names of the characters on both ends of a phone call, and the live transcript of their conversations. In an interesting role reversal, the graphics serve as the framework within which Álvarez strives to create the atmosphere. Line graphs of prismatic colours rotate, extend, twist and twirl to build a sense of pacing, tension and direction. In their abstracted forms, they simulate the setting — be it a long car drive or moving up and down the staircase — in a figurative way so as to not sever or supplant our own imagination. At their most effective, they're like a Fourier transform that turns functions of space-time into functions of frequency. At their least, they're like old-timey Windows screensavers, a mere distraction which serves no real purpose beyond bringing the screen to life.

Calls' allure lies in sight playing second fiddle to sound. With visual abstractions, the showrunners merely bring an intangible and psychological dimension to the usually concrete and public act of seeing. But it’s hearing which gives the show its intimacy and immediacy as its stories play out in our imagination. If only the stories told were a little more fresh, Calls could have been a fine advertisement of audio storytelling for binge-watchers, and still stand out as a bingeable series in its own right.

Calls will premiere on Apple TV+ on 19 March.

 

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