One way to think about the new Apple TV+ drama series Calls is as a podcast. Specifically, a podcast that's a descendant of the suspenseful radio drama, only it's played through your TV. A mix of science fiction, thriller and mystery, Calls is made up of a series of phone calls you listen to, accompanied by minimal graphics on screen: dots and names to represent people, sound waveforms to represent their voices, running captions of everything they say. The general visual feel will be familiar to anyone who watched swirling, bending curves in bright colors dance and bounce on a dark background in the age of the screensaver. There's not a lot to it.
The mystery begins at the end—a common tactic—with a baffling and frightening occurrence, and then it doubles back to explore what exactly has happened to get us there. There are nine episodes total, each in the 15-20 minute range, and the cast is big and impressive: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Rosario Dawson, Mark Duplass, Aubrey Plaza, Nick Jonas, and Pedro Pascal are just a few of the folks who show up. The episodes are standalone short stories that gradually reveal a larger tale. A guy on the phone with his girlfriend, a doctor on the phone with her sister, a man on the phone with a neighbor—all experiencing a baffling anomaly that disrupts their lives in different ways.
Calls comes by its unconventional format honestly—this was always an audio project. It began with a ten-minute short film with the barest visuals by writer and director Timothée Hochet, who posted it to YouTube and then wrote and directed a French television series based on it. This version is, in turn, based on the French show, and was written and directed by Fede Álvarez, who made Don't Breathe as well and The Girl in the Spider's Web.
What makes this an interesting effort arises out of the fact that it's very different to write for audio drama than for television or film. There are a bunch of reasons that's true, but one is that audiences need more and different signposting—voices that are different enough, characters calling each other by name, other cues that audio writers develop the ability to add seamlessly—to keep track of what's going on. If you've ever listened to just the sound of a scene from a show or a film you're not familiar with, you've probably noticed that you can lose your way very quickly, and if people are talking over each other or raising or lowering their voices, the complications can increase. (This is also why, for instance, if a news report on television plays the audio of a taped phone call, they'll caption and label who's talking and what they're saying.) Audio writing is not just TV writing without the screen, and it requires tackling a different set of challenges.