It’s not in the official description, but it might as well: If the world is a pool, Calls is the deep end where the The Twilight Zone dares not enter. Yes, the new Apple TV+ series from Fede Álvarez can be that bizarre. The U.S. is already weird — seeing protective masks as anti-free speech, linking “bad day” to “mass shooting,” flying to Cancún while constituents freeze, so on and so forth — but wait until you encounter its version in the show. A man in Los Angeles shares the bed with his mistress, but she is not yet home. The time in Phoenix is now one moment, then five years later the next. One Huntsville man accidentally kills his wife, only to find out she is yet dead. A hypochondriac in San Francisco believes she is melting.
You get the scene.
Well, sort of, but that’s the exciting part. Like the original version of Calls, the Canal+ web series from Timotheé Hochet also named Calls, the story unfolds over devices that capture speeches — mainly phones — which are then rendered into texts. At key moments, or key audio cues to be precise, fleeting graphics pop up. You never see the performers, and here we have Karen Gillan, Paul Walter Hauser, Jennifer Tilly, Rosario Dawson, Pedro Pascal, Mark Duplass, Clancy Brown, Stephen Lang, Aubrey Plaza and more names that will have you exclaim “I know them!” or “This must be a Mandalorian reunion.” Maybe “this is a Don’t Breathe reunion,” even.
What separates Álvarez’s take to Hochet’s is the need for the graphics to be more involved in the nine-episode narrative that, quite shrewdly, withholds the link between the callers until the end. If you’re a fan of mind-benders (and Calls is inherently mind-bending, as from the start it asks you to deprioritise the sense of sight) then you’re in for a treat. It asks you to take paths that bend and meld horror, plus full-tilt sci-fi – the shapes, lines, colours and waves inspired by abstract art and animated by Logan are free to adapt to the situation. From the Dateline-esque caller-to-caller sound wave it can shift to a spinning spiral or infinity symbol to highlight confusion, to the outline of a passenger plane since that’s the setting, to an intersection, so on and so forth. The texts can be seen rising when somebody says they’re floating, shattering when their bones are breaking. Hues bleed and vanish as the unseen characters experience an event that is both fatal to them and beyond their understanding. Zoom-ins at times assist the eyes to core dramas and revelations. These techniques give you a reason to watch the phone calls, and the reasoning has the variety and inventiveness to deflect queries along the lines of “Why isn’t Calls in the podcast format?” (But if you want to go in all-ears, feel free!).
Recall the pool now. Once everybody hangs up their phones — and you, the remote — The Twilight Zone quickly catches up and outruns Calls. The reason? Both Rod Serling and Jordan Peele & Simon Kinberg use their show’s strangeness to entertain and comment; Álvarez primarily focuses on the former by way of experimentation. No cause is superior than the other, but it does affect how memorable the experience can be. Whereas the calls in Hochet’s concept are bites with their own starts and stops, in Álvarez’s the nine conversations are divisible into three acts. And there is nothing left afterward. Call it a reflection of a phone call’s drop-and-done nature, you can, but things seem to lean more toward apprehension from the creator. It’s still a whole lot of fun and creepiness, mind you, even when there’s not much mileage. And you do wish there’d be more; some of the voice-acting can be stirring enough to (together) be afraid of a man without a face standing in the backyard or be curious whether the Earth is really broadcasting its apocalyptic signals.
Calls is now available on Apple TV+