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‘The Changeling’ Review: A Positive Start Turns Unsatisfying

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The Changeling is an upcoming horror fantasy series from Annapurna Pictures and Apple Studios. Based on the 2017 bestselling novel by Victor LaValle, the show stars LaKeith Stanfield, Adina Porter, and Clark Backo as a small family living in modern New York City.

The Changeling was developed for television by showrunner Kelly Marcel (the Venom trilogy), with most episodes directed by Jonathan van Tulleken, filmed by Christopher Norr and Steve Cosens, and edited by Geoff Ashenhurst and Jonathan Eagen. The executive producers include Stanfield, Marcel, and Melina Matsoukas

The Changeling will launch on Apple TV+ with a three-episode premiere on September 8, followed by weekly episodes. After eagerly anticipating the show all summer, I was delighted when Apple was kind enough to provide us with screeners for the entire season. So let’s see how it was!

[Warning: Minor spoilers for The Changeling below]

The story

The story begins when Apollo Kagwa and Emma Valentine (LaKeith Stanfield and Clark Backo) fall in love, get married, and have a beautiful baby boy. When strange things start happening around them, Emma begins to suspect that their child might be… something else. When Apollo doesn’t believe her, the situation quickly goes awry.

Crossing time, space, and the supernatural, The Changeling forces the family into the secret depths of New York in order to understand the truth of what is happening. Throughout the season, the show also tries to portray a metaphor for the fears and joys of early parenthood, adding a second layer of meaning to the story.

LaKeith Stanfield and Clark Backo as Apollo and Emma in The Changeling (Apple TV+)
LaKeith Stanfield and Clark Backo as Apollo and Emma in The Changeling (Apple TV+)

What worked in The Changeling

The Changeling starts really well with layers of magic, romance and mysterious mysticism. The first episode teases a little bit of dark horror, which is well-balanced with the tender heart and emotional sweetness that feel so central to the story.

My instant reactions to the first few episodes were very positive. I thought the series was wonderfully weird and creepy, with a delicious sense of paranoia driven by monkey’s paw horror. LaKeith Stanfield is as emotional and endearing as I’ve ever seen him, and the complexity of Clark Backo’s performance is one of the most compelling parts of the early episodes.

But by the end of the season, it’s clear that Adina Porter is the real highlight of the show as Lilian (Apollo’s mother). Following a frustrating midseason, the filmmakers reward the viewers’ patience with a graceful yet heart-wrenching showcase of Porter’s acting talents in episode 7. The careful direction, cinematography, and showstopping production design of this episode return The Changeling to the intense heart, horror, and beauty that the early episodes excelled at.

The many storylines and surreal effects make The Changeling disorienting, which was wildly fun in the first few episodes. The filmmakers use the chaos to their advantage to create rich layers of story which intertwine and interact across time periods, creating a complex web of causality. The story also has a peculiar structure where the script mentions details about the past, then several episodes later flashes back to reveal the what actually happened with additional context. These frequent flashbacks create a unique déjà vu effect that helps the timelines of the story feel intertwined, but further adds to the frustration and disorientation of the nonlinear narrative.

Beyond the mysteries of the story and the heart of the actors, the series sings with the confidence of strong filmmaking. Lester Cohen’s production design brings a quirky sense of life to the warm libraries, dark sewers, and other strange and unexpected locations.

Composer Dan Deacon’s score is sometimes beautiful, elegant, mystical, and haunting – but unfortunately it is rarely used as more than atmosphere. The music takes a backseat to the visuals and the script, which I found unfortunate because Deacon’s work really is quite nice.

Lastly, cinematographers Marcell Rév, Christopher Norr, and Steve Cosens present the series in a cinematic widescreen aspect ratio with beautiful interplays of shadows and light. As the show goes on, darkness consumes everything, turning the show bleak and dour. The cinematographers’ effect is further amplified by the dim, desaturated color palette.

LaKeith Stanfield and Clark Backo as Apollo and Emma in The Changeling (Apple TV+)
LaKeith Stanfield and Clark Backo as Apollo and Emma in The Changeling (Apple TV+)

What didn’t work in this Apple TV+ series

The Changeling has been marketed as “a fairy tale for grown-ups”. To be quite honest, it hardly fits that description. This series is more of a tragic drama with awkward touches of supernatural horror. The show is at its best when it leans into the tender romances, but each romance is painfully short-lived. Instead, the story chooses to focus on the aftermath of these broken lives, leaving the overall tone of the season almost unbearably dour.

The plot moves glacially across eight 50-minute episodes as the twists get stranger and stranger, and the audience gets no closer to any resolution. I don’t know how the events are paced in the book, but the murky midseason nearly killed my interest when the core emotional story screeched to a halt as a new storyline took over, going down an unexpected detour that I found disappointingly uninteresting.

While these are fundamentally issues of script, pacing, and direction, I also felt part of the problem was the character of Cal (Jane Kaczmarek) who co-leads significant portions of those middle episodes. I’ve really enjoyed Kaczmarek’s work in shows like Malcolm in the Middle and Frasier, but I felt she was woefully miscast for this role. Her fun, mercurial performance on the screen never gave me the same cold, confident energy that her character in the script seemed to imply, giving me a bizarre off-kilter feeling that I could never fully connect with.

But maybe the biggest issue of all is that, even by the end of the season, the world doesn’t make sense to me. Sure, I can understand the literal events that happen on screen, but I don’t fully understand the rules of this universe or how everything is related.

A key problem is that the finale is so preoccupied with setting up a potential season two that it leaves many of the core mysteries unresolved. I understand it must have been an intentional decision to adapt only half the story, and I understand that all the answers are provided at the end of Victor LaValle’s original novel. I’m sure the potential, unannounced second season will have a thrilling finale that wraps up everything.

But speaking for the mostly uninteresting TV season presented here, I felt very unsatisfied at the end of this experience. The series is so focused on its mysteries that it forgets to build emotional investment in the characters. By the end of the season, the charm of the show is gone, the mysteries have only led to more questions, and I care even less about Apollo and Emma than when I met them. The Changeling wants to be Twin Peaks, but it simply doesn’t have the panache.

LaKeith Stanfield as Apollo Kagwa in The Changeling (Apple TV+)
LaKeith Stanfield as Apollo Kagwa in The Changeling (Apple TV+)

I had been looking forward to this series because of the exciting blend of genres, the cast involved, and the popular reception of the book. But while watching, I realized I had no compulsion to come back between episodes. I just wanted it over so that it would be off my list, and I find that deeply disappointing. I truly wanted to like The Changeling, but after drudging through season one, I don’t know if I care enough for another eight hours in season two.

My conclusion on Apple TV+’s The Changeling

The Changeling starts with promise, but ultimately it didn’t work for me. To maintain momentum, I think it could have been faster, either with shorter runtimes or fewer episodes. I haven’t read the original novel, but based on these eight episodes, I don’t think this story needs to be spread across two 8-hour seasons either.

Out of curiosity, I took a look at the book, and instantly fell in love with Victor LaValle’s prose. The show seems to be a fairly accurate adaptation of the text, which I appreciate. Yet despite the great talents in front of and behind the camera, I don’t feel the show was able to capture the magic on the page. So if you’re curious about The Changeling, I would recommend checking out the book in addition… or perhaps, instead.

Are you excited for The Changeling on Apple TV+? Have you read the book? Let me know on X (Formerly Twitter) @vinwriteswords and remember to follow the site on social media or The Cosmic Circus Discord for more reviews coming soon!

Also, check out our Apple TV+ page for more sci-fi show reviews, including Hello Tomorrow!

Review: Hello Tomorrow! Season 1 Premiere

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Vin

Reviews, reading guides, and crazy theories. Obsessed with the Midnight Sons. Find me on Twitter @vinwriteswords!

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