The biggest trick in audio drama is vagueness. Try to overcompensate for the sensory information the audience isn’t getting and it can get pedantic really quick. Underdeliver and the telling of the story can quickly become too sparse for its own good. That middle ground is where the best parts of “Calls” reside.
The nine-part Apple TV+ project, created by director Fede Alvarez as an adaptation of Timothée Hochet’s French language series, also exists in another significant gray area. Each episode plays out like a part in an anthology, a group of collected imagined phone calls, each culminating in some terrible bout with the unexplained. These calls are represented in audio form, with onscreen transcripts of each side of the conversation. Those words, in turn, are set against an abstract visualizer-like background that develops with the changes in the call.
While not 100% essential to comprehending what exactly is going on, the visualizations of phone calls do emphasize some of the thematic ideas playing out inside them. Lines can connect, circles can link, distances can convey separation. They’re the visual equivalent of a low hum, waveforms that are at once responding to sound and attuning the watcher to greater ideas echoing off of them.
Still, there are barely a handful of things in the season that anyone just listening to these nine episodes wouldn’t also track. (Though there’s a moment in a later episode when an anonymous talker’s designation flips as soon as the other character learns their name. It’s thrilling in its own way!) That’s not intended as a slight. If anything, it’s a credit to the series’ sound design team, who are able to make these calls immersive without being distracting. There’s a natural atmosphere reverberating around each callers’ phone. When those chats sometimes take turns for the otherworldly, they’re rooted in tangible audio terror.
One of the stylistic connections that draws these stories together is the day and dateline at the top of each episode. It’s the tiniest bit of tablesetting that sometimes serves a story purpose (one presumably sets up a trip to Coachella) and others that just reinforce the idea that these strange occurrences can happen whenever they so choose (it will never not be unsettling to see something set in early March that features a character battling an unknown illness).
The two shows are drastically different, but in many ways “Calls” is an odd complement to “Staged,” another of this week’s streaming releases that turns its unconventional story parameters into an unabashed positive. Only here, it’s phone calls instead of Zoom, with Alvarez and a handful of other writers constructing a patchwork of otherworldly eeriness out of a series of conversations. Alvarez is a natural fit for this subject matter, having already navigated some visual limitations in his 2016 film “Don’t Breathe,” one of the most sharply crafted studio thrillers of the last decade.
Here, the director is working in an even more compressed time period than the usual TV episode. It certainly helps, then, to have performers who know how to convey the show’s specific sense of dread and uncertainty in just a handful of sentences. “Calls” has its share of heavy hitters, some of whom are easier than others to spot. (One actor not only shares a first name with his character, but audiences are used to hearing him speak without seeing his face.)
Whether stranger or friend or family member, there’s a certain disorienting quality to not being able to pick up on the cues of whether or not someone is telling the truth. Part of the inherent appeal of “Calls” is that you never can know for sure whether what you’re hearing can be trusted. A bit of that extends to the show itself. The middle stretch of the season lags a bit in parts when the big-picture ideas don’t exactly line up with these individual, isolated incidents. When the built-in advantage of a show is the necessity for conciseness, those chapters don’t necessarily drag down the show’s overall potency.
But when “Calls” is locked in, it’s an especially effective slice of horror. That usually comes when the show sticks to the “less is more” side of things. Hearing people try to describe the horrific things happening to them (or at least happening in front of their eyes) is often terrifying, even more so when confined to a few short phrases. This is a show that recognizes that the only thing scarier than not having the words to describe the indescribable is not being able to know just how accurate someone’s description might be.
“Calls” is now available to stream on Apple TV+.