By Andy Meek
When Albert Einstein’s longtime friend and colleague Michele Besso died in 1955, Einstein wrote a letter to the grieving family that included a particularly fascinating passage about the nature of time: “Now, he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
There are so many examples within pop culture of TV shows and movies that have played around with all of the strange, metaphysical implications of Einstein’s idea about time being illusory. This weekend, we get another: it’s Calls, a nine-episode drama debuting on Apple TV+ on 19th March that eventually plunges down a not-entirely-original rabbit hole involving the concept of a multiverse, and the kind of space-time paradox that threatens the extinction of all things.
All nine episodes of the show will be available to binge immediately for Apple TV+ subscribers. But right off the bat, a few caveats about this exceedingly ambitious show must be pointed out.
First, it’s not just the subject matter that makes Calls one of the most original shows on any streaming platform right now. Before viewers can enjoy (or not) the content therein, they must first acclimate themselves to the series’ idiosyncratic format.
As the title suggests, literally the entire show is comprised of audio recordings of telephone calls played for the viewer. Accompanied by ambient, slightly Matrix-style visuals, the viewer can listen to and read a live transcript of both ends of each telephone call. That’s what you’ll be doing for the entire series, that’s how you’re introduced to each character and their story, and it’s for that reason alone that Apple TV+ is taking something of a risk on this project from Studiocanal and Bad Hombre productions, in association with Canal+.
As soon as you understand that Calls’ nine episodes range in length from 13 minutes to 21 minutes — making the entire first season of the show only a little more than 2.5 hours long — it might bring to mind the spectacular flameout of Quibi, which similarly presented TV episodes as bite-sized chunks and played around with format and perspective.
Moreover, a cynic might look at this show as a lockdown excuse to give actors something to do. How else to explain the fact that the cast here includes high-profile stars like Lily Collins, Rosario Dawson, Pedro Pascal, Aubrey Plaza, and Karen Gillan, and all they’re asked to do is just… let themselves be recorded making phone calls in character?
This is the part where we have to also note that Calls is a show best experienced with as few preconceptions as possible. To do otherwise would be to ruin the big reveal that comes in the show’s penultimate episode (titled, ‘Is There a Scientist on the Plane?’), and it’s also best to leave viewers guessing as to whether all of the disparate stories in these “calls” are connected or not.
We can speak more broadly about the show without ruining it for anyone – by noting, for example, that it treads similar ground as movies like last year’s Tenet. Remember that speech at the end from Robert Pattinson’s character? It’s the one where he muses that “What’s happened, happened,” before making the seemingly contradictory point about how that’s also “not an excuse to do nothing.”
In Calls, characters ranging from a married couple with a sketchy neighbour to a young couple who put their relationship on hold as they each pursue opportunities in different cities get the chance to change big moments in theirs as well as other peoples’ lives. To be sure, this is familiar narrative ground vis-a-vis time travel. If you got the chance to go back in time and kill Hitler, for example, would you take it? Most people probably wouldn’t hesitate to say yes — until you remember that Hitler and the Nazis did, in fact, lose World War Two, and playing around with the sequence of events that led up to that reality could, in fact, create an even more terrible outcome.
Some of the characters in Calls, along these same lines, are given foreknowledge (or, more accurately, knowledge from the future) of how a loved one is about to die. Would you intervene to save that loved one? All of us probably would, unless you believe that what’s happened, happened, and that if it doesn’t or it’s not allowed to, the universe will course-correct until it does. And that fate will inevitably claim its victims, one bloody way or another.
Don’t misunderstand, though; this is not a show about time travel. Calls simply plays around with your understanding of time, which for most of us is pretty tenuous, at best.
Unlike the way Einstein laid things out in the quote above, most of us define time not by what it is, but how it’s measured. For some people, time is the accumulation of seconds, hours, days, weeks, months and years. Or the demarcation of events into one of three buckets (past, present, or future). When a show like Calls presents characters who seem to inhabit different timelines – like a commercial airline pilot in one episode, for example, who makes an urgent telephone call in the present to ground officials in the future — it might seem far too preposterous to take seriously.
But asking viewers to suspend their existing notions of all these concepts as they watch (or, rather, listen) to the stories play out is what makes a show like Calls so deliciously engaging – if, and it’s a big, important if, you can get past the quirks of the format.
Don’t worry about understanding all of this after diving right in to the show, by the way. The early episodes of Calls will make you think it’s one thing, when it’s really something else. Take it at your own pace – because if the coronavirus lockdowns have taught us anything, it’s that we’ve all got nothing but “time.” Whatever that means.