It’s perhaps to be applauded that, at its launch, Apple TV Plus doesn’t have a genre tentpole show based on an established intellectual property — its equivalent, say, of “The Mandalorian,” the “Star Wars”-universe series that will serve as further inducement for Disney Plus subscribers. Instead, Apple is trusting a mix of unfamiliar properties to win the day, a victory for those who say that repetitious franchise work is sapping Hollywood of innovation.
And yet. “See,” a pure genre exercise originating from the mind of writer Steven Knight, sorely craves the sort of pure structural integrity that source material can provide. Spiraling away from narrative control as its first three episodes unreel, this series, about a post-apocalyptic future in which nearly everyone is blind, wastes the time of Jason Momoa and Alfre Woodard, among others, on a story that starts from a position of fun, giddy strangeness and drags itself forward at a lugubrious pace. Source material would have provided structure (which many original properties have, but this one certainly does not). It also might have provided a control of tone. Knight, director/EP Francis Lawrence, and showrunner Dan Shotz have made a show whose elaborate look and grave tone aim for “Game of Thrones” but whose content is lower of brow and, sadly, of quality.
One issue: The show has bound up Momoa. Here, the actor plays Baba Voss, a chief of a tribe in a future where generations upon generations of humans have been born with sight only being a myth. The birth of two children, who age up early in the show’s run from babies to teens (played by Archie Madekwe and Nesta Cooper). He’s dutiful in the extreme, and rigid, uncomfortable as lead or just having to carry such rigorously dumb dialogue. (By contrast, in his first-season supporting role on “Game of Thrones,” Momoa was having the time of his life, deployed as he was to act out, big and broad.) Here, Momoa must alternate silent stoicism with “Xena”-level sword-and-sorcery dialogue or with violence so extreme that even hardcore fans will admit it loses whatever might have been its appeal. In one scene, generally quite nicely choreographed and interesting to look at, Momoa concludes the action by forcing his adversary to swallow a sword.
There’s a question of taste here — how many people are going to want to sit through this? There’s also a certain utilitarian question. Too much of “See” makes no sense from the perspective of a series about blindness. (It’s worth noting that unlike, say, “A Quiet Place,” the masterfully sound-edited film about a deaf girl and her family who must live in silence, this project makes no real attempt to show an inside perspective on what it would be like to be blind.) For every well-drawn touch, like a character snapping her fingers to draw a visitor to her, there are beats that run afoul of even a casual viewer’s common sense. For all that the sound design is indeed gruesome, who is Momoa’s Voss trying to impress by so showily murdering an adversary if no one can see the carnage? Why does an evil queen (Sylvia Hoeks) ask her subjects to “Behold!” her killing of gagged prisoners who cannot effectively communicate their distress to the sightless anyhow? Elsewhere, Madekwe’s and Cooper’s teens, the only two sighted people in the world and the object of much pursuit, teach themselves to read with the encouragement of their blind peers. If sight really was treated as something that had never existed, how did the blind even know what a book was — and how are the teens able to so quickly pick up not just the skill of literacy but the parsing of cultural context to understand “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “1984,” which they read together?
These questions feel ungenerous taken together as a barrage; the viewer ought, perhaps, to trust in the show to resolve its story. But nothing in “See” provides a basis for that trust. It is at best a fairly lazy copy of more effective genre entertainments’ tone, with messy and underbaked story filling in the gaps. It’s hard to know what “See” adds to a new streamer off the bat — perhaps the stardom of Momoa, perhaps the mere fact of a fantasy project’s existence. But it doesn’t lend the sense of a quality filter, and with so few shows available at launch, that doesn’t look good.