When I first heard that Sara Bareilles was working on a television show about an aspiring singer-songwriter in New York City, to say I was excited was an understatement given. But when her new show Little Voice premiered on Apple TV+ earlier this month and introduced a queer character, I nearly fell off my chair.
While Bareilles herself is not gay, she’s always been a huge queer icon, both through her allyship and her unapologetic refusal to be anyone but herself. This refreshing authenticity combined with a dash of hope form the backbone of Little Voice, making it a perfect binge for these trying times.
Not only is Bareilles the musical scribe for Little Voice, but she also works as the creator and executive producer alongside Jessie Nelson, who she worked with on the Tony-nominated Broadway musical, Waitress. Their new television project follows Bess Alice King (Brittany O’Grady), a struggling singer-songwriter who describes herself as “Alessia Cara meets Carole King meets Betty White.” (Because like Bess King, Betty White also loves dogs).
Like many artists trying to make ends meet, Bess works several jobs from walking dogs and bartending at a club to teaching piano and guitar lessons. In the show’s first episode, we follow Bess on her journey to write “I Don’t Know Anything,” a song that just about sums up my twenties. And as a songwriter and performer myself, the second episode is equally as relatable, with Bess building up the courage to get back on stage after a failed performance.
While Bess is certainly the focal point of Little Voice, part of what makes the show so endearing is the rest of its ensemble. Bess’s brother Louie (Kevin Valdez) has an encyclopedic knowledge of Broadway and is also on the autism spectrum. He lives with other neurodivergent individuals in a group home, all of whom are played by people who are actually on the spectrum. Bess’s dad is an alcoholic who tried and failed to make it in the music industry, and spends his days busking on subway platforms around the city with a group of other singers.
And what’s a dramedy without a love triangle; in the first episode, Bess meets Ethan (Sean Teale) in the storage unit where she practices. Later, she also meets guitarist Samuel (Colton Ryan) at the club where she works. The chemistry with both Ethan and Samuel is palpable, but the musical harmonies between Samuel and Bess really take things to another level.
While Little Voice certainly shows a lot of range when it comes to its characters, the most compelling storyline so far has been about Bess’s roommate Prisha (Shalini Bathina). In episode three, we see Prisha kiss her bandmate Ananya (Nadia Mohebban), only to have bottles thrown at them by two men who yell: “Send ‘em back! Terrorists dykes, go home.” This devastating moment is followed by a scene in the hospital, where Prisha introduces Ananya to her Indian parents as her friend. She later tells Ananya: “I know the world has changed, but [my parents] haven’t.” And when Bess asks why Prisha didn’t tell her about her sexuality sooner, she responds: “I got so used to tucking it away. It’s like a secret I was keeping even from myself.”
In a media landscape that features very few LGBTQ South Asians, this storyline is both refreshing and extremely important. As Bathina herself explains: “This is one of the first few fleshed-out characters written for the South Asian LGBTQ [community] specifically. To normalize that narrative for South Asian and South Asian LGBTQ [people] is so important. So I hope that this just provides more opportunities for more stories like this to be told.”
The music and the setting of Little Voice are characters themselves, with well-known locations such as Times Square and Central Park as well as some hidden gems with breathtaking murals. Almost all of the songs have been written by Bareilles, with my personal favorite being “More Love”, which Bareilles co-wrote with Jack Antonoff. Already halfway through its first season, Little Voice has really delivered: with its range of characters and heart of gold, it’s exactly what the world needs to get through these difficult times.