Fairy tales. Nursery rhymes. Dreams. Riddles. Historical treatises. Theories, both scientific and conspiracy. Social media discourse. Religion and mythology. Each is a way of using narrative to make sense of a world shrouded in mystery—of telling stories in order to live. For most of us, these formative tales come from our parents, who transmit their perspectives and experiences and misapprehensions to the next generation whether they mean to or not. The Changeling, an eight-part amalgamation of fantasy, horror, and romance that premieres Sept. 8 on Apple TV+, stalks the devil lurking at the crossroads of these human constants: parenthood and storytelling.
A passionate but frustrating adaptation of Victor LaValle’s stunning 2017 novel, the series benefits greatly from the quality of its cast. Executive producer LaKeith Stanfield stars as Apollo Kagwa, a New York City bookseller who thinks he’s found his happily-ever-after ending when he marries an adventurous librarian, Emma Valentine (Clark Backo of Letterkenny), and she gives birth, on the subway, to a baby boy they name after Apollo’s estranged dad, Brian. Months later, that dream of domestic bliss shatters when Brian dies and Emma, who seems to be suffering from postpartum depression, disappears. Now, the devastated, baffled, and unmoored father must embark on a quest to find out what really happened to his family. Combining vintage New York grit with dark supernatural elements, the story is accurately billed as a grown-up fairy tale.
No actor is more suited than Stanfield to play the deeply human hero of LaValle’s book. While it’s a heavier role than he tends to play, Apollo shares many of the contradictions innate to the star’s memorable Atlanta and Sorry to Bother You characters. Spacey yet determined, vulnerable yet masculine, he’s a cool oddball and a philosophical old soul capable of channeling childlike wonder. Backo executes a similarly delicate balancing act as Emma, whose initial winsomeness makes her slide into wild-eyed derangement all the more alarming. What keeps the character consistent is her steeliness—a will whose strength and purity bind her to Apollo even when her actions seem unthinkable. The consistently excellent, under-sung Adina Porter (American Horror Story) delivers a third remarkable performance as Apollo’s fiercely loving mother Lillian, who made a new life in the U.S. after a harrowing adolescence in 1960s Uganda.
Paired with a spare, aptly protean score from the electronic musician Dan Deacon that often sets a haunting mood but rarely indulges in overt spookiness, these portrayals lay a foundation of emotional realism for the epic Changeling. Working against the series’ subtlest and most authentic elements, unfortunately, are scripts from creator, showrunner, and executive producer Kelly Marcel (Venom) that rob LaValle’s tale of its elegance. Ideas about stories, parents, and the way they intersect to make us who we are that develop organically in the novel stick out like neon signs in the series’ dialogue. Marcel never stops underlining the intertwined ills of racism and white supremacy, anti-immigrant sentiment, misogyny, surveillance, and the internet’s anonymous hordes—factors that mostly linger in the book’s background, adding contemporary resonance without detracting from the story’s timelessness. (Yes, you will hear the word incel.)
One consequence of this compulsion to moralize is excessive repetition, both visual and verbal, that betrays a condescending assumption that viewers will be unable to make simple thematic connections without a lot of help. Too many rapid-fire flashback collages break the flow of the narrative. We don’t just observe the consequences of stingy parental leave policies; characters point it out over and over again. In haphazardly placed voiceover narration from LaValle, who is also an executive producer of the show, truisms assume the gravity of genuinely revelatory refrains: “Tell me your life’s voyage and I will tell you who you are.” Maybe the storytellers’ fondness for that saying explains why the series premiere opens with an uncontextualized anecdote about a 19th-century sea voyage whose relevance remains murky even after the ship resurfaces in an abrupt finale that relies too heavily on the prospect of a second season.
Marcel seems to be on a mission to demystify LaValle’s work, filling in ellipses that, like the best literature, left room for the reader’s imagination. Late in the season, two episodes focused on Emma and Lillian, respectively, expand our knowledge of their motivations. A showcase for Porter’s versatility, Lillian’s extended reckoning with her past has all the surrealism of an experimental film. Yet it also strains to extract a moral from her immigration story, yielding generic takeaways about American identity. Presented consecutively, the episodes kill the momentum of Apollo’s journey just as it’s starting to accelerate. These structural flaws arise out of the laudable impulse to remake LaValle’s book for a new medium. But The Changeling works so beautifully as a novel about stories because it wraps its profound ideas in a gripping story. While there is much to admire about Apple’s adaptation, it can’t recreate the magic of a true page-turner.
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