The newish medium of streaming is perhaps inevitably taking TV to its logical endpoint – namely, a weird return back to radio. At least, that’s the sense watching (or really, listening to) “Calls,” an Apple TV+ throwback to Orson Welles’ famous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast mixed with “The Twilight Zone,” reminding us that sometimes what you hear is scarier than what you see.
Adapted from a French series, the show employs minimal graphics – abstract waves and lines, coupled with what amount to word balloons of the dialogue – as the stories unfold over nine episodes, most running less than 20 minutes.
Directed by Fede Álvarez (“Don’t Breathe”), the creepy threads play out through a series of seemingly unrelated phone calls, each featuring characters involved in stories that involve strange, supernatural phenomena. In one, for example, a man calls home after a fight with his wife, unaware that vast amounts of time are elapsing on the other end of the line during what he’s perceiving as mere minutes.
Each story proceeds along those lines, in a way that feels unrelated but which comes together unexpectedly. The first and second episodes are rather coyly titled “The End” and “The Beginning,” offering a rough road map of how everything in between – that is, the remaining seven – might be connected.
Practically speaking, it’s a remarkably efficient way of grappling with Covid-19 production concerns, and certainly a low-impact approach in terms of cost and talent, with the voices of Rosario Dawson, Pedro Pascal, Lily Collins and Clancy Brown among those featured. And the graphics prove surprisingly effective in setting the mood, with a separate Spanish-language version planned for Latin American markets.
“Calls” works in part because it represents a change of pace, built around the notion that the horrors conjured by our imagination often surpass anything that millions of dollars in special effects can visualize. Yet it also speaks to the freedom that the sheer abundance of content platforms allows in terms of playing with formats, especially when doing so inexpensively.
Of course, streaming services engage in all kinds of stunts in order to gain attention, and there’s no denying that this amounts to a bit of a gimmick. Even so, for the couple of hours in our time that it takes to watch/listen to the chapters, “Calls” is an invitation worth answering.
“Calls” premieres March 19 on Apple TV+.