There’s a moment at the beginning of Prime Video’s new sci-fi series night sky that broke me. Irene and Franklin York – played by Oscar winners Sissy Spacek and JK Simmons – sit at their dinner table and talk softly about fear and death. An aging couple discussing the end is sad in itself, but what’s even more amazing is how the Yorks are living for each other after some 40 years of marriage. When Irene Franklin asks what he would do if she dies, he replies nakedly, “I would die too.”
The Yorks’ friends die or live in foster homes. Irene had a bad fall and now moves around mainly in a wheelchair. Instead of a social life, Irene and Franklin keep a secret that is as extravagant as it is romantic. Beneath the small shed behind her modest home in her one-stop-light Illinois town lies a portal to a vast and desolate planet. The couple enjoys sitting on their intergalactic observation deck and staring through a window at the alien landscape that connects our world to another. You can see a dry, rugged plain with snow-capped mountains. A sky of cotton candy that swirls like the Milky Way bathes the Yorks’ faces in a blurry, spectral glow, and they talk all evening. Crucially, they never breached the barrier.
It is difficult to describe the plot of night sky without revealing too much. The list of spoilers that critics would rather not mention is a pretty thorough description of everything that happens. The series is downright chatty for a sci-fi drama, but still falls within the tropes of the genre. There’s the mysterious arrival of a visitor named Jude (played by Thai-Australian actor Chai Hansen) who threatens to drive a wedge between Irene and Franklin. And there’s a nosy neighbor (Adam Bartley) inquiring about town about the quirky couple who take late-night walks to their shed.
But sci-fi beats are far from the most exciting night sky anyway. Franklin and Irene actively anticipate growing older. They routinely inflict the patronage they resent on their granddaughter Denise (Kiah McKirnan) on one another. There’s an occasional groan — Franklin dismisses Denise’s concerns about Jude with a egregious grandpa joke: “What’s he going to do — steal our metamucil?” — but for the most part, the show takes a careful, tender look at the trials of aging.
In the worst case night sky trots when it should run. The intergalactic threat never feels that threatening. For various reasons, including age and life circumstances, most of the main characters feel like they’ve been living towards death for some time. The space views are beautiful, but whole episodes go by without showing them. The first series by author Holden Miller, night sky‘s top-secret storyline often feels like it crowds out the show’s true pleasure: Spacek and Simmons deliver exquisitely measured performances that capture the patience required to make a long marriage work.
Perhaps the series works most powerfully as a metaphor. In episode one, the Yorks hit an undeniable fork in the road. Irene wants to spend more and more time in the secret chamber, intimidated by the possibility of the abyss. Franklin is afraid of it. For much of the series, they’re on separate tracks, trying to grapple with the unknown. night sky is not explicitly religious, but the twin themes of death and new frontiers can hardly avoid a religious optimism: there is more time towards the end too.
Night Sky is available now on Prime Video in the US and UK
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/reviews/night-sky-review-prime-sissy-spacek-b2080154.html Night Sky Review: Sissy Spacek stars in a poignant meditation on aging disguised as a sci-fi thriller