Streaming columnist NICK OVERALL extolls the virtues of a tv show in which not a single actor appears. It’s a case of using your imagination…
A SHOW with actors that don’t ever actually appear on screen? It might seem like a hard sell, but “Calls”, now streaming on Apple TV+, pulls off its ambitious premise with flying colours.
Quite literally flying colours. The only thing on screen the audience gets to visually play with is abstract and surreal lighting that’s paired with the real core of the story: the audio.
Nine episodes, between 12 and 20 minutes in length, each feature a phone call between two people we get to listen in on. Through each, a compelling plot quickly comes to light, often with a shocking twist.
Famous actors have been cast for their voice talents to bring the stories to life: Pedro Pascal, Aubrey Plaza and Nick Jonas to name a few, but it’s easy to forget that these phone calls are indeed fictional.
There’s a strange realism to it all. The show has an aura of eerie surrounding it. In a way it feels like these phone calls shouldn’t be listened to, like the viewer has stumbled across some strange relic of another world.
What are these calls about?
Well with such an outside-the-box premise, I personally found going in with no idea was the best way to commit to the already “out-there” experience that’s promised.
But to describe it in a word or two: “Twilight Zoney”, though you probably won’t find that in the “Oxford Dictionary”.
It’s bite-sized entertainment. The slim run time means the gimmick doesn’t wear itself out and it’s perfect for streamers who want to give their imagination some exercise.
“Calls” may indeed represent a very different way of digesting television, but it’s not necessarily a unique type of storytelling. Fictional storytelling entirely listened to has become ever more popular through podcasting. One of the most prominent is “Welcome to Nightvale”, streamable on Spotify or other podcasting services. It’s a series about a town where creepy conspiracy theories run rife.
It’s fascinating that the most popular type of this storytelling revolves around premises meant to spook an audience, perhaps because it so heavily relies on the activation of the listener’s imagination.
More than that, the concept harks back to another era of entertainment well before the streaming age, one where audiences were engaged with a different kind of “wireless” device.
Perhaps the most famous example is Orson Welles’ infamous radio broadcast of 1938, terrifying Americans into believing Martians were invading.
You can listen to Welles’ entire broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” on YouTube, and there’s fascinating parallels between it and these more modern attempts to freak out an audience through audible means.
Going further down this rabbit hole, in a way there’s an even older edge to all this that might explain why the creepy concepts have proven most popular here: storytelling by word of mouth.
I have a vivid memory of being a high schooler camping around a fire with friends in the pitch black night of the Northern Territory, projecting that thin teenage veneer of fearlessness as we told one another stories to try to scare each other.
It’s a memory I’m sure I’m not alone in having, give or take a few details, but that experience of simply hearing another story by word of mouth is such a fundamental, universal way of doing so that these days it’s easy to forget how powerful it can actually be.
An anecdote told to me by a colleague recently highlights this more than anything. On a car trip, she had put on an audio book for her four-year-old daughter to listen to, but was soon asked: “Where’s the screen, mum?”