In the original Prime Video series “Night Sky,” J.K. Simmons and Sissy Spacek play a longtime married couple who have their own little piece of heaven. In a metaphorical sense, it’s their longtime, lived-in relationship, in which Franklin York (Simmons) now takes care of his ailing wife Irene (Spacek), even when he can be forgetful about picking her up from the doctor's office. In a more literal sense, it’s their view of some faraway orange and purple planet, made possible by a secret portal under their shed. They don’t know exactly what the planet is, or how everything works, even after visiting it over 800 times like trips to a calming lake no one else knows about. But it’s enchanting, and it's all theirs.
This is a quaint and curious opening premise for a sci-fi story about the wonder of such a partnership, and yet “Night Sky” (created by Holden Miller) proves to have few standout ideas of its own afterward. It’s the kind of twisty, sentimental series that yearns for the intrigue of a J.J. Abrams-grade mystery box narrative with its portal, but bungles an essential strategy to that—“Night Sky” doesn’t inspire a certain degree of confidence in the storytelling to make you think there’s something worthwhile inside.
“Night Sky” concerns themes of caring for loved ones, and experiences with loss and aging, at least initially with Franklin and Irene’s tender story, which could have been something like a Sundance indie on its own. But the wonder of the Yorks’ secret is distracted from in order to include different supporting characters in its sketched-out world-building: their granddaughter Denise (Kiah McKirnan) comes home from Chicago with her own crisis, wounded by the grief of losing her father Michael (Angus O’Brien) years ago, and an uncertainty of what to do with her life. Meanwhile, a nosy neighbor named Byron (Adam Bartley) has his own frustrations about trying to make something of himself in their small town of Farnsworth, Illinois while struggling to earn the respect of his grumbling neighbor Franklin. These are emotional journeys that, of no fault to the actors, take away from the series' power instead of adding to it.
The Yorks' lives are put into danger when strange things suddenly happen worldwide: another man named Jude (Chai Hansen) enters the picture, having his own association with the portal. His true background feels hazier and hazier, even when he finds himself being taken care of inside the York home. And somewhere else in the world, a mother, Stella (Julieta Zylberberg) and her daughter Toni (Rocío Hernández), also have a similar situation, with their own kept secrets related to this phenomenon. “Night Sky” toys with a connectivity for everyone, in a way that only picks up speed in the second-to-last episode of season one.
Like many details from the show, Amazon has asked for the associations of many of these characters to be kept secret. Needless to say their arcs suffer from common problems with “Night Sky”: thin writing and slow plotting that's more focused on establishing background than making for a nervous present tense. A story with this many abrupt road trips and secrets shouldn’t feel this dull; instead they make the series into a hollow epic, sometimes filled in with cheesy villains and a couple bursts of action.
It’s a common complaint that a lot of shows in our currently overwhelmed streaming market are too long for their own good, and “Night Sky” is a great, unfortunate example. There is only so much wonder here, and only so many repeated themes, before everything starts to lose its magic and momentum over eight hour-long episodes. “Night Sky” makes for easy viewing at least, thanks to how its tone rarely challenges its audience, and also thanks to the directors who inject bits of visual life to it: the directors in the mix include Juan José Campanella (“The Secret in Their Eyes”), Sara Colangelo (“The Kindergarten Teacher”), and Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini (“American Splendor”). They help give a discernible amount of dimension to flat material that wants to mix the surreal nature of sci-fi with the humble humdrum of eating at a breakfast diner, but hardly feels more urgent or clever than that.
There’s something to how everyone in "Night Sky" keeps secrets they’re afraid to share, even in relationships as eternal as that between Franklin and Irene, or Stella and Toni. But that’s a generous reading as secrets become the lazy way to a twist here, sometimes in service of minor, minor plot lines involving the acquisition of some glowing trinket we barely come to understand. And there just isn’t a great deal of nuance to how the emotions fit into the narrative, with the show sometimes taking what can best be called “crying breaks” to force some dramatic importance from the grief at the center, as with seemingly any time Michael is brought up. A melancholy piece of music or tearful performance can signal to us a moment that’s important, and yet the narrative tact isn’t there to allow us to naturally feel for it.
It doesn’t help that it all collectively feels unfocused, undermining so many pieces in the process. And as much as the emotional moments try to affirm some grounded importance, the show’s general wistfulness only goes so deep. Simmons and Spacek give gentle performances, especially when showing the different ways their own secrets from each other can hurt. But while this makes for the most intriguing plotline, they feel limited in what they can do, and the York storyline eventually becomes a drag itself.
All the while, there’s that portal under the Yorks' shed, the impetus for all of these emotional visits and these life-changing adventures. It’s so obviously a narrative device, a mystery box begging to be appreciated just for existing. And yet “Night Sky” is not audacious enough with any other parts of its storytelling, so why would it be with a portal that can take casually take Irene and Franklin to space? "Night Sky" loses its wonder, in part because the series is not bold enough—with its emotions, or its imagination.
All of season one screened for review. "Night Sky" premieres on Prime Video on May 20th.