Welcome to Up Next, a recurring column keeping an eye on what’s new in TV. This week, TV critic Valerie Ettenhofer checks in with a review of the new Apple TV+ series The Changeling, starring Lakeith Stanfield and Clark Backo.
Apple TV’s new series The Changeling feels like a dream. Not a typical dream, it must be noted, nor even a typical nightmare. Instead, The Changeling feels like one of those once-in-a-blue-moon dreams that feels like an uncanny lifetime – the kind that leaves you with a cold sweat and an urge to explain every unexplainable detail to a friend upon waking. The surreal show is shot through with horror, magical realism, and ambitious yet grounded human drama, but it evades easy description on almost every level. The Changeling is an incredible show that doesn’t always make sense – but then again, do dreams need to make sense to make us feel something real?
The plot of The Changeling on paper is as follows: a man named Apollo (Lakeith Stanfield) and a woman named Emma (Clark Backo) meet and fall in love despite their discreet yet complementary childhood traumas. When Emma becomes pregnant, the pair welcome the opportunity to be better parents than their own, but the baby’s birth sets off a sinister change in Emma. Is it post-partum depression? Full-blown psychosis? A curse from that witch she talked to once in Brazil? Or is it just a metaphor? The show never gives easy answers; in fact, the more consumed Apollo gets with finding answers to the family’s most inexplicable tragedies, the less straightforward the series becomes. Over its eight episodes, The Changeling becomes a topsy-turvy wonderland, but it’s one that’s worth getting lost in.
The series pulls from the novel of the same name by Victor Lavalle, and the author narrates with an assured voice that lends even its oddest moments a sense of gravity. Early on, the series blurs the lines between the real and the surreal. Apollo calls himself a god and has childhood memories walled in by a supernatural fog. Emma’s friend describes her look of determination as that of a sorceress, and a fairytale-like red thread is ominously cut from her wrist early on against her better judgment. The Changeling is more interesting than cohesive, as it works hard to elucidate some plot points (including with extensive flashbacks featuring Apollo’s mother, played by Alexis Louder in the past, and Adina Porter in the present) while letting others spin away from us as the show dips into an increasingly shadowy underworld.
Viewers who fretted over something like Lost’s loose ends will probably kick a hole through their TVs at the end of this series, but anyone who’s been hungry for television that feels more literary, cinematic, and ambitious than typical fare will find plenty worth savoring here. Queen & Slim and “Formation” filmmaker Melina Matsoukas directs the show (Venom writer Kelly Marcel created it), and she and cinematographers including frequent Sam Levinson collaborator Marcell Rév produce some of the most stunning TV visuals this side of The Underground Railroad. Every shot of The Changeling looks darkly dazzling, and as the show begins to fold in on itself in a purposely opaque and fairly avant-garde narrative, it’s the breathtaking visuals that anchor the whole experiment.
Lavalle’s novel was released in 2017, far too recently for it to join the ranks of once-mythical “unadaptable” books like American Gods. Yet it feels like an appropriate label; the author’s bold ideas about human nature, parenthood, transgression, autonomy, magic, and more seem as if they’d be too slippery to properly capture on screen, yet this series pulls it off. Though the show doesn’t operate solely as horror, it certainly contains horrific elements, blending unthinkable concepts with something more arcane lurking below the surface of New York City. It’s easy to project simple meaning onto some of the story’s choices – to see it simply as a postpartum allegory, or a fable about cycles of trauma – but the eldritch terrors Apollo encounters on his journey work all the better when you loosen your hold on your sense of their meaning. Ultimately, The Changeling is a show that’s meant to be felt, and it certainly makes its audiences feel — even when the emotions aren’t to our liking.
It’s perfectly possible that The Changeling will lose people along the way. Its path is strange and its eventual conclusion is not nearly as tidy as anxious viewers may have hoped. But anyone who does stick with the show will be rewarded with a gorgeous, twisted slow burn the likes of which has never been seen on TV before. There are shades of Neil Gaiman and Stephen King here – not to mention the deeply American magic of Barry Jenkins and Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad – but The Changeling is its own beast. Discovering what kind of beast, exactly, is a bit like understanding what (if anything) is wrong with the baby at the series’ center. It’s tough to explain, but you’ll believe it when you see it.
The Changeling begins streaming on Apple TV+ on September 8, 2023. Watch the series trailer here.