Before Bess (Brittany O’Grady) gets up the nerve to play her own songs for an audience, she anticipates the confused feedback she might get. As she explains in the first episode of “Little Voice” with a half-apologetic shrug, her music is “very…earnest.” At another point, forced to put herself in terms the music industry might understand, she describes her work — written for the show by co-creator Sara Bareilles — as “Alessia Cara meets Carole King.” And yet, it’s the “earnest” note that sticks, defining her and “Little Voice” both. (Though for what it’s worth, the King comparison is far more accurate than Cara.)
From Bareilles and Jessie Nelson, “Little Voice” is, somewhat paradoxically, a modern update of a throwback, hearkening to a time when TV was rife with earnest dramedies about talented young women trying to protect their bleeding hearts (see: executive producer J.J. Abrams’ “Felicity,” for one). Nelson’s direction is intimate, the color palette soft, the harshest moments threaded with plaintive piano. Most every moment, in fact, comes with a musical accompaniment, whether through one of Bess’ songs or one of the many musicians dotting what sometimes seems like every New York City.
Budding songwriter Bess is brimming over with talent and feelings she can only truly express in song. In between scribbling lyrics on whatever scrap of paper she can get, she’s too busy running around the city tending to the needs of her musician father (Chuck Cooper), Broadway obsessive brother (Kevin Valdez) and handful of scattered odd jobs. (While “Little Voice,” like most shows set in New York City, seems to take place in a perpetual summer, its most realistic and singular take on the city might be Bess’ reliance on the gig economy.) Bess is kind and anxious, a combination that often results in her taking on too many of everyone else’s problems. But when she sings, it’s entirely her own story, and breathtaking.
That Bess is genuinely talented takes a huge burden of proof off the show. O’Grady brings an eminent warmth, not to mention a singing voice reminiscent of Bareilles’ that fills every inch of the screen, to the role. So much of “Little Voice” depends on people falling for Bess (at least three men do over the course of the first season), or at the very least, believing in her so much that they drop just about everything to help her achieve her dreams. Two of those, Bess’ musical collaborator Samuel (Colton Ryan) and de facto manager Benny (Phillip Johnson Richardson), don’t have much in the way of their own lives outside Bess, so get necessary boosts from Ryan and Richardson’s eager performances. And in the role of Bess’ best friend and roommate, Prisha, Shalini Bathina makes the most of her character’s journey to self-acceptance that, while unresolved by season’s end, has more than enough pathos in it to hold over to a second season.
In a time of marathoning shows, the aggressive sincerity of “Little Voice” could backfire. But with nine episodes running a half-hour each, the show is generally smart about how much it leans into its sentimentality, which ultimately befits its unabashedly enthusiastic characters. Sometimes it’s subtle; often it’s not; mostly, it’s heartfelt.
“Little Voice” premieres Friday, July 10 on Apple TV Plus.