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‘The Changeling’ Review: LaKeith Stanfield in a Muddled Apple TV+ Mystery

According to rudimentary Googling, Apple has a generally well-regarded parental leave policy. But according to the output at Apple TV+, there is anxiety in the water in Cupertino (or in the company’s Los Angeles offices).

Dropping this Friday, The Changeling is the second Apple TV+ series in five years blending fairy tale and horror to delve into maternal and paternal anxieties about nature, nurture and the price paid when parents are forced to leave babies behind to return to work.

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Perhaps not as bluntly effective as Servant, The Changeling is an admirably ambitious series, especially on thematic levels, where it seems to be bursting with commentary on 21st century parenting. As storytelling, though, Kelly Marcel’s adaptation of Victor LaValle’s novel is a mess. Though the series isn’t lurching through time and frames of reality without intent, its refusal to build any sort of momentum becomes increasingly frustrating. By the end of eight episodes, which barely advance the stakes beyond the initial premise and don’t come close to reaching any sort of resolution, I was finding The Changeling to be a murky slog — capable of sparks of inspiration but generally marred by storytelling inconsistencies.

LaKeith Stanfield, playing a single note with building intensity, stars as Apollo, a dealer in antiquarian books. As earnest about romance as he is about uncovered first editions, Apollo finds love with Emma (Clark Backo). When Emma becomes pregnant, Apollo is determined to be a better dad than his own father (Jared Abrahamson’s Brian), who abandoned his Ugandan immigrant mother (Alexis Louder and then Adina Porter). Or maybe he didn’t.

A bigger mystery arises when Emma begins to question whether their baby is actually their baby, a delusion escalated when her too-brief maternity leave runs out. Emma becomes increasingly unnerved by text messages and pictures suggesting that she and Apollo are being watched. After she seeks out the advice of a social media mother’s group, Emma does something very bad to their baby. Or maybe she didn’t?

Believing himself the hero of this story, Apollo embarks on a journey trying to get to the root of what Emma did and why. But is Apollo’s hero’s journey toward answers or toward understanding that, when it comes to babies and their mothers, there are always things that even the most devoted and well-intentioned fathers can never understand? So who is actually the hero in The Changeling? Well, it isn’t always clear.

The Changeling begins, narrated by LaValle, with the words “Once upon a time,” but its actual DNA is far more complicated. There are traces of Greek mythology — “I’m the god Apollo!” is Apollo’s frequent mantra, one of the show’s many recurring mantras — and African and Norwegian folklore, as well as urban history, pan-cultural fairy tales and more in this melting pot. If the American Dream is that each generation will improve upon the example set by their own parents, this is an American nightmare in which the perceived wisdom of the generations has been replaced by modern disconnection and dysfunction, poisoned further by the insecurities of knowledge gleaned from paranoid web searching. Whereas traditional myths and fairy tales offered wisdom, usually intended to be clear enough to be comprehended by a child, the cacophony of voices here — Instagram, wish-granting crones and various folks preaching a gospel of “fate” and “destiny” — have equal power but none of the clarity.

The first four episodes are especially repetitive in hovering in and around The Very Bad Thing that Emmy does, Apollo’s response to it and what his mission is supposed to be. It’s maybe 10 minutes of plot, stretched over four hours and fleshed out with maybe 10 minutes of flashbacks tied to Very Bad Things that happened in the early stages of Apollo’s childhood and in his parents’ relationship. There’s nothing wrong with a subtext about the infectious tendrils of generational trauma, but it’s covered competently in an episode or two, without quite so much of Stanfield moping his way around New York City (occasionally accompanied by Malcolm Barrett as a fellow book dealer and military vet with his own barely introduced trauma). The arrival of Future Islands frontman Samuel T. Herring as a mysterious man who knows more than he’s saying at least pushes the show forward, but in very similar and unrelentingly miserable ways that require viewers to have a high threshold for baby-in-jeopardy drama.

In the fifth and six episodes, some actual progress is made and you can see the fairy-tale structure of the story beginning to take shape. There are welcome guest turns by a very funny Steve Zissis — in a show that desperately needs more humor and whimsy — as a denizen of New York City’s underground and Jane Kaczmarek as a woman with some answers. Then the seventh episode hits and embodies everything I respected and was exhausted by in the series.

Directed by Michael Francis Williams, the seventh episode of The Changeling is unquestionably one of the most audacious hours of TV you’ll see this year, if you make it that far into the series. It’s a time-jumping one-woman showcase for the generally exceptional Porter (with Louder offering some support) set in a vintage Manhattan pay-by-the-hour hotel that brings together Ugandan genocide, the AIDS epidemic and Lena Horne’s cover of “Stormy Weather” in a proudly theatrical — Brechtian? Yes, Brechtian — jumble.

It also explains and over-explains everything in the series up to that point, layering reveals I didn’t know I was supposed to be curious about with thematic spoon-feeding I didn’t need. In a vacuum, it’s a gutsy piece of television. In context, it’s a curious brick wall that the show runs into before a finale that, despite being all plot and running only 30 minutes, never returns the series to the gear that had briefly seemed so promising.

For all of the variation in the story’s influences, there’s insufficient variation in the tone and my investment ceased to be in the characters or their circumstances; I was left, instead, just being generally curious what points the show would try to make next.

The lack of tonal variation hinders all of the performances, especially that of Stanfield, whose sad-eyed, muted fatigue becomes contagious. At least Backo, so likable as Rosie on Letterkenny, has a “before” and an “after” to play — pre-partum and post-partum, I guess — but not much interiority. Backo is underused, as are Barrett and Amirah Vann, playing Emma’s sister. Some of the outsized supporting performers, like Zissis and Kaczmarek, fit with a genre in which our protagonists meet colorful characters along their unlikely path. Others, like Abrahamson doing ’50s-style Method emoting, don’t fit as well. It’s hard to tell exactly what Herring is doing, but at least it’s unpredictable.

Predictability has been a byproduct of centuries of sanitizing fairy tales and mythology, training viewers to expect “happily ever after.” Maybe The Changeling is working because it cheats those expectations and leaves viewers with something unsettling. Or maybe it’s just unsettling because, for all of the admirable and worthwhile ideas it’s engaging with, nothing is effectively coming together. Through a full season, I lean in the latter direction and my interest in a second is very limited.

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