Creepy Calls is a fascinating but flawed head trip [Apple TV+ review]

With new show Calls, Apple TV+ brings a French TV sensation to America and it’s three things in one. It’s a fascinating experiment, an old idea repackaged — and something of a missed opportunity.

The series, which premieres this Friday, hides its star-studded voice cast behind pixelated images and on-screen text, making it sort of an anti-event. That alone means Calls faces an uphill climb to find a new audience.

Calls season 1 review

About three minutes into the first episode of Calls, directed by Evil Dead and Don’t Breathe stalwart Fede Alvarez, I had the crushing realization that it wasn’t working. I haven’t seen the original series by Timothée Hochet, though I’m willing to believe that it was more successful than this version.

European media doesn’t need to be as commandingly loud as stuff made for Americans, so maybe Hochet tried things in a more subtle fashion. But the thing is, this premise isn’t interesting enough that I’m going to rush to check it out.

A simple concept

The story of the show is simplicity itself. Each 20-minute-or-so episode consists of a series of phone calls rendered by on-screen text. Jumpy oscillogram or video synthesizer abstractions represent the sound of the human voices you hear. The voice talent includes very capable and exciting actors like Judy Greer, Jennifer Tilly, Paul Walter Hauser and Lily Collins. And the vocal performances are all fine-to-great — there’s nothing wrong with them.

The stories all prove kind of interesting from a conceptual standpoint (a man doesn’t realize he’s been missing, a couple’s break-up is complicated by an inhuman intruder). But there are issues.

One is that the stories keep adding one crazy element after another, including multiple calls to the police, and this kind of takes the thrill and mystery out of the initial premise. It’s tough to let anything sink in when, two minutes into the original idea, the parameters have changed completely. The first call is practically a dubstep song for all its twists and turns and beat drops (the score by The Haxan Cloak doesn’t help one stay focused), all paired with the visualizations.

911 what’s your emergency?

When Apple TV+ Calls, will you answer?
Photo: Apple TV+

There’s a lot to admire about the show, but none of it translates into things that are actively good about watching it. The idea of basically just doing a radio play on television has a fun retro charm to it. And, as someone who grew up with media player visualizations, I find there to be a pleasingly stoned quality to the episode.

For those whose bones aren’t turning to dust: When you would play songs on old freeware MP3 players like WinAmp (this was pre-iTunes), the software would generate fun little visuals to go with the sine waves. It sort of made a movie for you to watch out of colors and shapes. (If you can’t picture what I mean, watch the music video James Frost made for Radiohead’s “House of Cards.”)

This is compounded by the Twilight Zone-style reveals of each episode. “You were declared dead, years ago man!” is an actual line of dialogue, for instance, and also a pitch-perfect impression of your very high college roommate trying to explain Black Mirror.

So basically, Calls is for kids who just discovered both Harlan Ellison and LSD. Which is fine — that exact personality type deserves media, too. But this is not a show that everyone is going to be able to get into.

An interesting experiment in audio

As a fan of avant-garde cinema, the visuals themselves are kind of the whole show for me. It’s kind of cool that a show that’s little more than a Viking Eggeling or Fernand Léger animation done with expensive computer animation probably sold for six figures to one of the biggest media companies in the world.

That alone makes Calls worth watching and talking about, even though as dramatic fiction it never does anything especially interesting. I think it’s always cool when someone tries to beat the staid formula of narrative TV — and I think this is a noble attempt to do something different. A successful attempt? Hold please.

Calls on Apple TV+

Calls arrives March 19 on Apple TV+.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.