The first episode of “Night Sky” offers nearly enough precision in its pathos to exist unto itself. Franklin (J.K. Simmons) and Irene York (Sissy Spacek) are an aging couple living just outside the (fictional) small town of Farnsworth, IL. Irene, a retired English teacher, isn’t letting her declining health affect her good humor, and Franklin enjoys taking care of her, Over their many years together, he’s adjusted his bad habits to better her life. “Son of a swine herd” are the first words out of Franklin’s mouth, as he habitually checks his language to appease his wife’s distaste for swearing. She still corrects his grammar. He smiles when she does.
Their loving rapport extends to what at first appears a simple late-night request from Irene: Tonight, she wants to “see the stars.” Franklin, while less eager, agrees, and helps Irene get situated in her wheelchair, guides her outside, and leads her… inside a small shed? Franklin helps her down the stairs, into a lit, underground tunnel, and peels back a heavy, metal door. From there, a light within the domed chamber flashes, and they’re transported to a room with two chairs, a table, and a stunning view of an unnamed planet. Irene and Franklin settle in, gaze out through the floor-to-ceiling window, and enjoy their 856th trip to, well, wherever they are.
Too soon for Irene’s liking, they venture back home, and the rest of the episode starts filling in backstory: a nosy neighbor, a mysterious stranger, a son who died decades too soon. But what works about the pilot — contrasting Irene’s need to move forward, whether to explore the strange new world or onto the next life altogether, with Franklin’s desire to preserve what they have, and safely spend as much time together as they have left — falls apart over the seven padded, lightly plotted follow-up hours. Like too many streaming TV shows that come across as stretched-out movies, “Night Sky” trickles out its premise over a full, frustrating season.
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At first, it feels like showrunner Daniel C. Connolly and creator Holden Miller are simply pacing their series for an older, more patient audience — cradling sweet, telling, minor moments within the Yorks’ marriage. But as questions slowly stack up and answers are put off for no good reason, it becomes clear that “Night Sky” isn’t really about a couple struggling with arduous end-of-life planning; it’s a mystery-box show mapped over a tender romantic drama, and it becomes a rather lazy, tedious one at that.
Problems start to arise as soon as the second episode cuts to another family entirely, this one made up of a mother and daughter living in Argentina. Stella (Julieta Zylberberg) and her only child, Toni (Rocio Hernández), live a sequestered life in the desert. Toni doesn’t have many friends, and when she secretly invites a boy over, her mother flips out. Immediately, it’s unclear why Stella would be so upset; trying to hook up with a boy at 13 is one thing, but merely making friends is another. No explanation for a mother demanding her daughter live in isolation is given, and Stella’s reasoning is held back long enough for the mother-daughter duo to have the same fight, over and over. The audience likely knows why: There’s an old church near their house that Stella protects and cares for, despite no one else being allowed inside. Putting one mysterious backyard retreat together with the location already visited in Illinois will quickly put viewers well ahead of the narrative.
The show never tries to catch up. Remarkably few answers are given over eight hours, in part because certain plots lead nowhere (the neighbor’s political aspirations just… stop) but also because every character is far too complacent. Toni desperately wants the same answers we do, but as a teenager, she’s forced to trot along behind her mom, waiting and hoping for an explanation that may never come. Byron (Adam Bartley), the Yorks’ new neighbor, is also appropriately eager, but it takes way too long for him to become part of the main plot. Stella is a brick wall only matched in obtuse suppression by Jude (Chai Hansen), the mysterious stranger at the story’s center.
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Spacek and Simmons, both Oscar winners, help make even the most dragged out bits watchable. As character actors, they’re adept at finding texture and nuance within scenes, working to freshen interactions and build arcs on honest humanity. I love that Simmons keeps Franklin’s shirt pockets unbuttoned — the mark of a man who works with his hands and treats his clothes as useful tools, not aesthetic accessories. (Franklin, before he retired, was a carpenter by trade.) Spacek could give a masterclass in movement. Irene is in pain at the start of the story, but gradually improves. Spacek does little to draw attention to these developments, letting the script point out the necessary changes, but she lives them all the same. Each stilted action is a process in early episodes, whereas later on, she finds a modest fluidity. Each actor gets a handful of emotional monologues. Each elicits great meaning out of a few looks. They are, indisputably, exceptional actors.
But they’re still hung out to dry here. There are only so many minor details you can appreciate until you need something major to actually happen, and the main couple’s development languishes in the long hours ahead. “Night Sky” has the pieces of a moving drama without the substance. After that first hour — which, with acute empathy, weighs a partner’s final needs against the needs of each individual — you may be holding back tears. But after seven more, your eyes have glazed over, and even these luminous stars can’t bring you back to Earth.
“Night Sky” Season 1 premieres all eight episodes Friday, May 20 on Amazon Prime Video.