For a large majority of “Losing Alice,” the people on screen aren’t quite sure what’s happening. The unknowable nature of a partner’s true feelings, the confusion of fleeting glimpses of people who can’t physically be there, and the daily tiny frustrations of film production: all have the potential to make a shaky foundation for a drama series. Add on the idea that what the audience sees is often one fictional layer downward and there are plenty of chances for “Losing Alice” (premiering on Apple TV+ this week after airing on the Israeli TV network Hot 3 last summer) to lose its way.
It takes a steady hand and a clear eye to make sure that disorientation serves a purpose. Fortunately, writer/director Sigal Avin has both and plenty more.
After an enigmatic preamble, the series jump starts with the arrival of Sophie (Lihi Kornowski), an aspiring writer whose chance encounter with director Alice (Ayelet Zurer) begins a long effort to bring the latter out of a feature film hiatus. That series of attempts also brings in David (Gal Toren), Alice’s husband, an actor trying to get out of a creative rut of his own. Both spouses are particularly taken with the style and substance of Sophie’s story idea: two young women have their close friendship tested when one begins a torrid relationship with the other’s father.
As both David and Alice express interest in Sophie’s script and move in their respective ways toward trying to bring it off the page, the interplay between the three of them becomes the center of a web of intent and obsession, threatening to ensnare plenty of others around them too. Both Sophie and her words become a hovering specter in their day-to-day lives, with the young writer worming her way into their respective subconsciouses.
Over time, it becomes clearer that Alice and Sophie’s introductory conversation is the beginning of a long parade of conversations filled with half-truths and lies by omission that pepper the rest of the series. Just as Alice or David feel like they’ve reached some understanding or unlocked some buried motivation, there’s another complicating force that threatens to upend not just the fledgling project, but their entire lives. Alice finds herself not only becoming an amateur sleuth to figure out Sophie’s true intentions, but turning that investigation inward to decide how much (and in what way) she’s wiling to welcome this growing energy into her family’s home.
What really stands out over the course of “Losing Alice” is the toll that’s often tucked away in these kinds of stories. There’s a shocking act of violence that effectively opens the series, yet most of the turmoil and agony that seeps into the rest of the episodes is internal. It’s one of the rare cases of “Losing Alice” using outright misdirection. Instead, the show finds its strength in following a succession of hairpin narrative turns at a more deliberate speed.
As the title character, Zurer bears much of the emotional weight of that zig-zagging. So much of these episodes are filtered through Alice’s perspective that it’s up to her to embody all these swirling, conflicting ideas, sometimes all in a single take. There are plenty of times when Avin will linger on her and without saying a word, you can see the incremental shifts through excitement and terror and shame and, at times, rage. It’s something the show comes back to more than once (Sophie and David have their share of these moments too), but each time there’s enough of a change to show how far this experiment is progressing.
The mechanics of this story require that Sophie be a true psychological supernova, dazzling all who cross her path and liable to become a black hole to just as easily crush them. Kornowski handles all these aspects, ready to switch from ingenue to confident emotional assassin at a moment’s notice. If that were all Sophie was, “Losing Alice” would still have a strong sense of tension at its core. Through Avin’s writing and Kornowski’s portrayal, though, there’s a kind of vulnerability to Sophie, too. “Losing Alice” is designed so that at any given moment, it’s equally believable as real fragility or another tool in the arsenal of a diabolical manipulator. Kornowski inhabiting both at the same time is a really effective trick.
That the show has enough room to let Alice and Sophie’s gradual switches play out in real time is another example of the overall patience of “Losing Alice.” Some viewers might balk at the middle episodes’ back and forth between honest explanations and sinister motives. Still, there are rewards for that cautious, creeping pace throughout the season, culminating in a late-episode centerpiece that’s a microcosm for all the assured storytelling choices that come before it.
There are certainly perils that come with nested fictional narratives. Peeling back the production layers and questioning how close to the surface you are at any given point can easily lead to a sense of feeling adrift. Rather than shy away from that, Avin embraces it at every turn. There’s a sense of purpose to each change in mood, whether that’s brought about by an aesthetic design choice or a more subtle adjustment of the audience’s perspective.
There isn’t much in “Losing Alice” that isn’t drawing in part from an established psychological thriller tradition. (Alice and Sophie do meet on a train, after all, and this is far from the first story to use a hotel as a relative stand-in for a main character’s subconscious.) But it would be an oversimplification to describe “Losing Alice” as merely “[insert canonical director]-esque.” The ongoing seesaw of power between the notable players in this drama goes beyond the simple femme fatale playbook. Avin clearly knows how to generate the most fertile scenarios, but is far more interested in the implications for each of these characters than wowing with showy twists.
“Losing Alice” plays out on a fragmented timeline just off-kilter enough be unsettling. This doesn’t veer into puzzle-box territory because Avin doesn’t need it to. Anchored by a couple of tremendous performances, “Losing Alice” can take an evocative color palette, a well-placed camera, and a few gentle moves to unlock some genuine uncertainty and anxiety. Watching this show is watching a handful of characters try to keep a grasp on their own story. There’s a real potency in seeing that not even they know when they’re successful or not.
The first three episodes of “Losing Alice” are now available to stream on Apple TV+. Additional episodes will be available on Fridays.