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Night Sky review: A sci-fi mystery that looks down, not up

In many ways, Night Sky feels deeply indebted to past sci-fi TV hits like Lost and even Netflix’s Lost in Space reboot. The eight-episode first season of the new Amazon Prime sci-fi drama is full of strange technological devices, secret organizations, hidden motivations, and overarching conspiracies. By purposefully littering its story with so many mysteries and unexpected reveals, it even feels like the show’s creative team is hoping Night Sky will be able to hook viewers in much the same way Lost did.

However, it is to Night Sky’s credit that it’s not hard to imagine a world such as this fictional one even without any sci-fi elements whatsoever. The series focuses on an elderly couple played by J.K. Simmons and Sissy Spacek, and the ways in which it attempts to explore their decades-long relationship over the course of its season are often genuinely moving and sophisticated. For that reason, there are moments when Night Sky feels more like a family drama than it does a grand sci-fi mystery.

In fact, if it were to be stripped of its genre parts, the series likely wouldn’t decline in quality much, if at all. Unfortunately, that’s part of the problem with Night Sky.

A portal to another world

Franklin and Irene look together at another planet's stars in Night Sky.
Prime Video, 2022

Night Sky follows Franklin (Simmons) and Irene (Spacek) York, an elderly couple who live in relative isolation in a small Illinois town. Their lives could easily be considered predictable and boring were it not for the nearly nightly trips they make to a chamber buried beneath their shed, which has the power to take them to an observation room on a distant, unidentifiable planet. By the time the series begins, Franklin and Irene have been making their secret interstellar trips together for years.

Their peaceful, mildly extraordinary routine is suddenly thrown into disarray, however, when Irene discovers a young man, Jude (Chai Hansen), lying face down on the floor of their secret observation chamber. Her decision to let Jude stay with her and Franklin threatens to attract the attention of a nosy neighbor named Byron (Adam Bartley), as well as the mysterious, cult-like mercenaries who are searching for him. More importantly, Jude’s presence forces Irene and Franklin to truly come to terms with a tragedy from their past that, for many years, has remained the unspoken shadow hanging over their relationship.

In other words, Franklin and Irene’s marriage is very much the heart and soul of Night Sky, and Spacek and Simmons both turn in stunning, emotionally layered performances as their characters. For their part, Night Sky creators Holden Miller and Daniel C. Connolly make it clear from the series’ opening scene that they have a firm grasp on the complexities and emotions that lie underneath the surface of Franklin and Irene’s marriage.

Drawn-out mysteries

Byron crouches in the dark in Night Sky.
Chuck Hodes/Amazon Studios

Even when Night Sky is testing its central relationship, the series never feels like it is challenging Franklin and Irene’s marriage in a way that is manipulative or inauthentic. Their problems are born out of their own regrets, insecurities, and flaws, and Spacek and Simmons manage to communicate all of that without ever erasing the history of love that Franklin and Irene share. The problem with Night Sky is that Franklin and Irene’s marriage isn’t its only narrative thread, and the constant precision with which their storyline is handled isn’t present in many of the series’ other subplots.

That’s especially true of the global trip Stella (Julieta Zylberberg) and Toni (Rocío Hernández), a mother-daughter duo from Argentina, embark on throughout Night Sky’s eight episodes. The duo’s journey is intrinsically connected to Jude’s arrival at Franklin and Irene’s home, but the series takes its time spelling that out. While their storyline is the key to understanding the show’s biggest mysteries as well, only a few of the many sci-fi-related questions that Night Sky introduces are actually compelling enough to create interest in finding out the answers to them.

Additionally, despite both Zylberberg and Hernández turning in strong work as Stella and Toni, their trip from Argentina to the United States suffers greatly from Night Sky’s sometimes glacially slow pace. The series feels the need to drag out many of its storylines, including Stella and Toni’s trip, to the point where they often weigh Night Sky down. None of the series’ eight episodes clock in shorter than 50 minutes in length and they all spend some time checking in with the show’s numerous characters. If some of those check-ins had been cut, Night Sky would probably flow a lot better than it does.

Too ambitious for its own good

Chuck Hodes/Amazon Studios

While Night Sky does often struggle to balance its various subplots, the series does offer some genuinely refreshing moments of narrative ingenuity throughout its first season. The handling of Adam Bartley’s Byron, in particular, is surprisingly deft, as is its exploration of Franklin and Irene’s relationship with their kind-hearted granddaughter, Denise (Kiah McKirnan). Most of the show’s many flashbacks even manage to succeed in adding compelling new shades to the lives of Night Sky’s characters.

The series also doesn’t feel the need to answer all of its own questions by the time its first season concludes, which may irritate some viewers and leave others interested to see where it goes moving forward. However, the show’s several last-minute, late-season turns don’t stop Night Sky’s sci-fi elements from still feeling like the weakest parts of it. As a result, it’s hard not to see Night Sky as a strange mix between a moving and raw drama about the challenges one couple is forced to endure and a bland sci-fi mystery involving weird cults, powerful portals, and other plot devices that aren’t nearly as intriguing as they should be.

Night Sky - Official Trailer | Prime Video

Ultimately, the series’ best scenes are when Franklin and Irene are forced to actually discuss their shared tragedy with each other as well as those they love. In specific, one scene between Franklin and Denise is so vulnerable and emotionally honest that it’ll likely take your breath away without needing to show you any expansive interstellar vistas or sci-fi gadgetry. As a matter of fact, Night Sky is often at its best when it’s not doing that, and that, as they say, is the rub.

Season 1 of Night Sky premieres Friday, May 20 on Amazon Prime Video. Digital Trends was given early access to all of the show’s eight episodes.

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