“Lisey’s Story” is a battle. It starts in the early going of the new Apple TV+ limited series — directed by Pablo Larraín and adapted by Stephen King from his own 2006 novel — as it puts viewers through a kind of disorienting endurance test.
Lisey (Julianne Moore), still mourning the death of her late husband and world-renowned author Scott Landon (Clive Owen), is left to piece together the fractured timeline of their romance. From the early days of his fledgling career to their beachside wedding to the day of an unexpected attack, Lisey (pronounced LEE-see, by the way) seems to be captive to those time-hopping thoughts, unsure what to do next.
All the while, the show is meticulously hinting at a tranquil world beyond memory. It’s rendered in stark blues and oranges, complete with marbleized faces and onlookers both rapt and wrapped. What it all means isn’t abundantly clear, but the longer “Lisey’s Story” goes, the more it succeeds as a sensory experience than one governed by logic.
It makes sense that even though “Lisey’s Story” revolves around the legacy of a writer, much of what we see is watching. Lisey’s sister Amanda (Joan Allen) is diligently watching the horizon, seemingly locked into her own distant connection to Scott. Lisey considers the boxes of unpublished pages that her husband left behind, waiting for some sort of sign to help guide her through a suddenly lonely existence.
If that initial stretch is marked by waiting, it’s a holding pattern definitively interrupted by a young man calling himself Jim Dandy (Dane DeHaan). In DeHaan’s hands, he’s a mirthless, rusty coiled spring of a person moving from target to target, begging to snap. Hired by a party interested in pressuring Lisey to make Scott’s outlines and unfinished works available to the public, Jim takes it upon himself to be Scott’s avenger. Whether fueled by a passion for Scott’s novels or a frustrated desire to exert power, Jim is the embodiment of all the ugliness that “Lisey’s Story” tries to thrive on.
King’s work has long been concerned with the physical manifestation of the abstract, the idea that someone’s mistakes or grief or regret can present themselves in ways that can do unmistakable harm that goes well beyond the psychological. “Lisey’s Story” falls right into that tradition, brimming with scenes of domestic abuse and self-harm meant to underline the inescapable nature of the past. Larraín brings those scenes to life in vivid and unnerving form, done with such visceral menace that it often verges on self-indulgence. If the cruelty of trauma is the goal, there are only so many ways that someone can be shown bleeding from their face or wrist before it becomes less of a metaphorical purge and more of a rote exercise in depicting pain.
There’s something to be said for King at least trying to take on the idea of toxic fandom through Jim, particularly in a character that in its original written form predates the latest trend of hypercharged entitlement that now permeates the entertainment world. (The more Jim gets the chance to pontificate, the more he becomes a merging of a number of malignant online subcultures.) Much of that gets lost, though, in the way “Lisey’s Story” is built on a foundation of blunt brutality. In King’s framing, it so often devolves into pointing at something ugly as if that’s enough.
Unsurprisingly, the show works best when Larraín’s patient approach links up with luxuriating in ideas from the page that are best left shown and soaked in. Repetitive as it may get over the course of the series, the visual representation for the crossing between reality and dreams is effective in its simplicity and its execution. Though there’s certainly more trickery as “Lisey’s Story” veers farther into metaphysical territory, the show really works when these ideas can be executed with simple precision.
But, this being King, there’s a frequent tug-of-war between those eerie, otherworldly tableaus and the too-cute-by-half simplistic terminology (Doubles, Shrouded Ones, The Bad) that are so much of an author staple they often play like self-parody. Toss in things like a flurry of Hank Williams tunes and tiny details like Scott’s pet name for his wife and this is unapologetic King, for better and worse.
Moore is certainly the on-screen anchor here, even as she’s being pulled between different timelines and spiritual poles. She’s long proved that she can handle emotional wringers of any size, and this puts that to the test. Lisey has her share of defeated, enervated moments to go along with shrieks of grief echoing through the open fields of the sprawling Landon estate. When those wails seem to catch her by surprise, Moore captures that idea of out-of-nowhere despair better than almost anyone.
While the rest of the show’s main cast doesn’t get quite as many of those opportunities — Owen is at a preternaturally even keel for almost all of his screen time — their collective accomplishment is de-emphasizing all the fantastical jargon and selling the actual emotion underneath as best they can. The further the show gets away from Lisey’s family (and the threat Jim poses to them), the more the show’s icy stiltedness starts to creep in. When “Lisey’s Story” locks into its grasps on marriage and sisterhood, it’s enough to make all the police officers and book publishers and psychiatrists flitting around the outside feel all the more extraneous.
For much of its runtime, “Lisey’s Story” is not a show of abundant warmth. Yet even with its characters bundled up for the chilly weather of the Northeast (again, this is King we’re talking about), cinematographer Darius Khondji brings a much-needed brightness to cozy fireside flashbacks and sunlit attic-trapped mornings. That light doesn’t always equate happiness, but it helps the series maintain a dreamlike feel in the show’s conception of reality. The same unmooring and melding is present in Clark’s fantastic score, which glides between dissonant industrial scraping and lyrical sorrowful melody with ease.
Lisey is at her most relatable when, towards the show’s midway point, she responds to one particular harrowing flashback with a pointed “Why would you make me remember that?” As the show progresses and the logistics of her journey come into sharper relief, it’s natural to wonder if all of this is worth it. It’s never an easy “yes,” but when the obfuscation starts to melt away and the show isn’t bent on delivering the extremes of human behavior, the punishing ride leads to a destination with some unexpected rewards.
The first two episodes of “Lisey’s Story” are now available to stream via Apple TV+. New episodes are available every Friday.