Meet Franklin (JK Simmons) and Irene (Sissy Spacek) York.
They’ve been married for more than 50 years. Like most couples with that longevity, they have their own shorthand forged from decades of happiness and shared tragedy.
The Bottom Line
A padded slow-burn kept watchable by two superior leads.
They have a granddaughter (Kiah McKirnan’s Denise) whom they love and worry about. They have a nosy neighbor (Adam Bartley’s Byron) who keeps trying to insinuate himself into their lives. They have a shed in the back that’s built over a bunker that contains an elevator that can transport them to an observation room in an evacuated settlement on a seemingly barren alien planet.
In short, Franklin and Irene are just your average septuagenarian duo.
Created by Holden Miller, Amazon’s Night Sky is the latest entry in the recently burgeoning genre of slow-burn sci-fi, shows that promise to be about speculative elements, but want to make it clear that they’re more about human concerns and spiritual themes than UFOs or time travel. It’s like Amazon’s Outer Range is about a giant interdimensional hole in Josh Brolin’s backyard, but it’s really about land rights and faith. Or how Apple TV + ‘s Invasion is about an alien, well, invasion, but it’s really about international production locations and faith.
It’s a tough and potentially frustrating genre and Night Sky will very likely infuriate viewers whose curiosity is more on the “Interstellar Travel” side of things than the “Growing Old Sucks” side, but Night Sky has something going for it that Invasion and Outer Range do not have: Sissy Spacek and JK Simmons. The two Oscar winners are never less than compelling, even if the same cannot be said of the mystery they’re involved in.
To more generally summarize the plot, Night Sky is about a couple with a secret that could shake our planet to its core, but that they’ve lived with for years and they’re almost bored by – or as bored as you can be by a passageway to a different planet. They’re more invested in their various health maladies, grieving for their son and resisting suggestions that they might want to consider getting a caretaker or moving to a smaller, more manageable home.
Complications begin with the arrival of the enigmatic Jude (Chai Hansen), who reminds Irene of her son and worries Franklin for reasons he can’t express.
Meanwhile, in remote Argentina of all places, Stella (Julieta Zylberberg) and her teenage daughter Toni (Rocío Hernández) are raising alpacas and Toni is becoming antsy about her mother’s talk of their family destiny and their general isolation.
Are Jude and Stella and Toni connected in some way to the situation with the Yorks’ shed? Very likely! Are they all connected in some way to Josh Brolin’s giant hole? I mean, I don’t think so, but I can’t rule it out. The best description I can give for Night Skyat least for Lost fans, is that it’s like if Rose and Bernard discovered the hatch… and then decided they didn’t really care, because they were too busy regulating their blood pressure. Oh and keep an eye out toward the end of the season for a guest star who underlines the Lost connections.
Night Sky gets down to genre business rapidly. It’s less than 10 minutes into the Juan José Campanella-directed pilot that Irene asks her hubby, “How about we see the stars tonight?” This is her code for taking the vomit-inducing trip to some unknown galaxy. The problem is that while their extraterrestrial observation deck is unquestionably gorgeous – unnaturally looming moons, vast stretches of rocky terrain – there isn’t really all that much to do. So after establishing its outer space bona fides immediately, Night Sky then lingers on more pressing questions for its characters like, “Have you done the rehab exercises the doctor recommended?” or “Why is grocery store check-out so complicated?” or “Why is Byron next door, who only moved to town six months ago, running for city council?”
While the pace of Night Sky picks up dramatically in the last few episodes, the first half of the season straddles the line between wheel-spinning elongation – that this was probably a feature that got expanded to a series because of the opportunities of Peak TV is an inevitable hypothesis – and character development.
The material relating to Franklin and Irene can more convincingly be categorized as the latter. They didn’t ask for a cosmic conundrum in their backyard, and if they’re more invested in woodworking and empty nest, that’s just how life goes. Straying more toward the former is the stuff with Byron and his aspirations, which joins comparable subplots on shows like Physical and Yellowjackets in treating local politics as the last refuge of a struggling writer. It’s almost impressive that after his stultifying introduction, Byron became a character I cared about by the end of the first season, for which I think Bartley deserves some credit.
As for Denise, it’s hard to care about her difficulties in graduate school, the ethical failures of one of Irene’s former students and whether or not Stella and Toni will get around to shearing on the weekend. When you’ve got something extraordinary at the center of your story, I understand the appeal of exploring the banality around the periphery, but banality can still be entertaining and in Night Skyit only occasionally is.
The advantage of having Spacek and Simmons on-hand is that they’re actors capable of making literally anything feel authentic. Don’t believe me? Simmons had a show about alternate dimensions in which he played alternate versions of the same character and was apparently so authentic and natural that Emmy voters forgot to notice the remarkable thing he was doing. Here, every scene with Irene and Franklin is grounded in real experience and Miller and showrunner Daniel Connolly adhere to an effective less-is-more philosophy, from the couple’s wordless meals or drives together to their approach to their peculiar portal. They have 50 years of comfort together, and when the second half of the season finds tensions rising, every note of exasperation and desperation, especially from Simmons, rings true. Of all of life’s mysteries, Night Sky suggests, marital endurance might be the most miraculous.
Having characters who use a stairlift setting the pace of your show can produce challenges, and the writers have to lean on the Stella / Toni storyline for momentum at times. I can’t spoil what they’re up to – and a lot of it is composed entirely of wheel-spinning and exposure – but Zylberberg and Hernández sell it decently, with doses of humor that the series desperately needs. Hernández, an Argentine actress I’ve definitely never seen before, is right on the edge of becoming the show’s most persuasive performer by the end of eight hours.
Like Invasion and Open Range, Night Sky is a series that feels like it’s treating its first season mostly as prelude, and by the finale it hits the beats most viewers will have grown impatient waiting for. Spacek and Simmons keep those eight hours from being a chore, and there’s potential going forward for something more engrossing.