There comes a point in some television shows where you wonder if they have anything to say, and before you know the answer to that question, you judge them completely on the journey. Through four episodes of Night Sky, the new Prime Video drama starring J.K. Simmons and Sissy Spacek as an older middle America couple guarding a very big secret, I still have no clue what the hell is happening, but I’m eager to find out. Even more important, I think I’m okay if I never find out. Yes, it would be disappointing if it was another in a long line of alien-centric teases where the mystery runs interference for the (lack of) plot, but this is a show that draws you in with narrative and performative subtleties, and if it turns out that the extraterrestrial phenomenon was just, like, the interconnected nature of the human species, man, the journey was worth the letdown.
Franklin (Simmons) and Irene (Spacek) York are your classic good-hearted old folks from the heartland, or at least close to the heartland (whatever small-town Illinois counts for these days). He was a carpenter, she was a school teacher, and now they’re retired on the rustic old homestead; they treat each other tenderly and with folksy humor. The central tragedy of their lives is the death of their son 20 years earlier, and the emotional scars are still evident. But as with many seemingly plain-at-first-sight families in dramas such as these, there’s something profound and scary and awe-inspiring beneath the surface, and that something is a portal in the basement of their shed that leads to outer space. More specifically, a glassed-in room in outer space where you can take in the panorama. They’re as mystified as we are, taking in the sights for years, more than 800 times total. But all they’ve ever seen is the gorgeous landscape. No aliens, no buildings, no sign of intelligent life at all.
The only other notable feature is a door that leads outside, but Franklin put a mouse through that door once, and the mouse fared just as you or I might without a spacesuit on the surface of the moon. Irene senses the end coming, though, and she’s no longer satisfied with stargazing. She wants to go through that door, and is about to commit that self-erasing act when something finally happens—she sees a young man (Chai Hansen) in the room where no human has been before, struggling to breathe, covered in blood.
This is Jude, and Jude claims amnesia. What we know about him extends no further than a photograph of a man called Gabriel and some Spanish doubloons. But Irene knows this is the long-awaited flash of excitement, and potential revelation, and she knows she won’t get another chance. So they keep him around, Frank distrusting, Irene gently probing, while Jude’s silence is broken only by a few knowing glances when nobody is looking.
What does it all add up to? Beats me! That will become important to me in about two episodes, I assume, because patience runs thin even with the most captivating dramas. But the pacing of Holden Miller and Daniel C. Connolly’s series is so self-assured, and Juan José Campanella’s direction so competent, that it’s hard to imagine them failing to move forward when it’s finally required. Viewers have been disappointed in this genre before, but things feel different here, and it has the effect of calming your worries about the time investment.
As for the cast, Spacek is terrific in her strange mixture of anxiety and serenity, dual emotions she’s been able to command at least as far back as the film Badlands. There’s an enigma behind that pale face and almost translucent eyes that has always been irresistible, and hasn’t been dimmed here at age 72. She’s a perfect match for the unspoken strangeness of the show, and though she plays a character whose natural instinct is to retreat at moments of stress, her presence fills the screen.
It’s Simmons, though, who may stick with you the longest. The longer his career goes, the more impressive he becomes. This man is a chameleon, and it’s remarkable that he can play roles as varied as Franklin, a near-bumpkin endowed with total kindness but also an undertone of cunning and a sharp edge, in the same lifetime that he played the merciless sadist-slash-genius Terence Fletcher in Whiplash. There are layers to his performance as Franklin that you can only begin to unfold, even with a long post-watch reckoning, and yet again you’re left with a sense of awe at how he vanishes into a role to the point of total immersion, where you can’t see the artifice until you’re marveling at it hours later.
There is an almost counter-cultural trend of slow-paced dramas in the last 10 years, and because it’s become a mannerism, and in many cases a copycat, they are mostly insufferable. For every gem like Station Eleven, there are 10 duds, and it’s hard not to sigh when you settle in for a new show and realize you’re in for something that the favorable critics will call “deliberate.” And yet, Night Sky is one that works. It’s a tribute to the synchronicity between the depth of the unsolved mystery and the similar depth of the two principal actors. They embody multitudes, and happily, those multitudes are a match—or near enough—for the indescribable universe they’ve been blessed to glimpse, but never fully understand.
All 8 episodes of Night Sky premiere Friday, May 20th on Prime Video.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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