‘The Changeling’ Aims for Rich Depths With Dense Mysteries 

Among streamers, Apple TV+ has been one platform with a truly consistent delivery in its content. Their shows are often slow burners, and are typically moody, in-depth explorations of human melancholy. Whether the plots are focused on sci-fi or psychological, they rarely get sunny. “The Changeling,” adapted from the acclaimed novel by  Victor LaValle, tells a contemporary fairy tale with dashes of horror, while exploring a large span of subjects. The Black American experience, postpartum depression, the sins of our parents, and fantasy all come together in this series that is driven by its superior performances. 

LaValle himself narrates the entangled storylines. It all begins with a ship headed for the New World centuries ago on stormy seas before cutting to modern-day New York, where Apollo (LaKeith Stanfield) lives off being a rare bookseller. He scours historical buildings and estate sales, seeking rare editions or priceless author signatures. While strolling through a New York Public Library branch, he locks eyes with Emma (Clark Backo), a librarian who is a bookworm’s daydream. The narrative then cuts to 1968, when Apollo’s father, Brian (Jared Abrahamson) met his mother, a Ugandan immigrant named Lillian (Alexis Louder). In both cases father and son were determined to win over their big crushes. Once Apollo and Emmy get married, they soon have a son. Soon enough, major stresses begin to take a toll. Apollo has recurring nightmares and Emma is convinced some malevolent force is manifesting itself via their child. When she commits a horrible act and vanishes, Apollo goes on a journey to uncover the past and find potentially shattering answers.

Peak TV showrunners are eagerly snapping up anything that makes the New York Times bestseller list or reaches the heights of literary prestige. These days most new fiction can feel like pitches for the studios in their very style and storylines. “The Changeling” was hailed as a sincere book with evocative power, though as a series it might take a while to truly win a viewer over. Showrunner Kelly Marcel uses eight episodes to both include nearly every beat of the book while justifying its existence as a show. Be warned now, by the end, there are no clear answers to anything that has transpired. It is also not a lively horror thriller in the style of HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” but more of a dreary, stretched out premise like Apple’s own “Servant.” This is because the focus appears to be mostly on the ideas the narrative is attempting to convey about fate, destiny, free will and the complications of life. Scenes that are truer to life, like Emma going into labor on a subway, carry much more visceral fear than any conjured spook.

When the series works it can be effective and unnerving. Emma’s downturn is cryptic but performed with real intensity by a great Clark Backo. We may wonder if the baby is indeed some kind of monstrous force, but as an allegory for the terrors of early parenthood, many moments can be searing. LaKeith Stanfield has always defined a calm center in his roles and here combines that presence with painful fear. He might also not be ready to be a parent, allowing his romantic urges to get ahead of both he and Emma. When tragedy strikes, he’s a shattered man trying to make sense of a life thrown into limbo. For bookworms there are also plenty of intriguing detours into the world of rare bookselling, with discussions on why a Harper Lee signature could set you for the rest of the year. More importantly, Apollo’s memories explore how being Black American can mean facing prejudice even in places where reading and intellectualism are seen as an elite pastime. As a boy he tries to enter bookshops to buy or sell, but gets shunned by snobby white owners.

“The Changeling” has so much promise but eventually weakens due to the first season functioning as an eight-episode set up. Great supporting roles by Malcolm Barrett, as a veteran and fellow bookseller with his own demons, and Steve Zissis as a comedic but slightly tragic inhabitant of New York’s underground, only help in providing excellent performances to a cluttered narrative. War in Uganda and the AIDS crisis are also thrown in later in the season in striking scenes connected to Apollo’s mom (played younger by Adina Porter), which still don’t lead to any concrete answers. We also learn Emma took a backpacking trip down south to El Salvador, where a mystical woman by a waterfall talked to her about three wishes, along with other puzzle phrases. What does all this lead to in terms of answering what happened to Emma and her son? The idea might be that there’s enough in the novel to justify a second season.

Apple also keeps a consistency in the look of these shows. Like many of its fellow titles on the streamer, “The Changeling” is filmed in dark shadows, deep browns and drained palettes. On a technical level it is quite well-made. But this is a tough one for the casual viewer and will most likely appeal to those unafraid of a dense, challenging viewing every week when new episodes premiere. With high-caliber performances, we should at least get something close to a resolution at the end. Some answers must be given when we will more than likely have to wait several years for the next season. On that note, this is a curiously unbalanced show where certain elements are absorbing while others lag. It cannot be accused of being shallow and has much to say. The delivery just feels like an endless road that makes us care for the characters but loses interest in the endgame.

The Changeling” season one begins streaming Sept. 8 with new episodes premiering Fridays on Apple TV+.