“Apples Never Fall” Wants To Be “Big Little Lies” but Has Bad Little Writing

The following review of Apples Never Fall contains mild spoilers.


When watching Apples Never Fall, the new Peacock series based on a novel by Big Little Lies author Liane Moriarty, I kept thinking about the woman who put $50,000 in a shoebox and handed it to her scammers. If you haven’t read or heard of the story, I envy your ability to avoid internet discourse. Missing from much of the backlash to the piece and then the backlash to the backlash was a coherent and complete class analysis of the whole situation. The woman who put $50,000 in a shoebox tells the story as if it’s a cautionary tale, as if it could happen to anyone. She presents her own financial literacy and occupation as proof that she’s very smartvery educated. She lists other friends of hers who also were scammed out of thousands and thousands of dollars and states their occupations, too. Again, as proof they’re very smartvery educated. What she doesn’t say about herself or these others is that they’re all also very rich. You have to have $50,000 to be able to put $50,000 in a shoebox. And sure, scammers target people of all income brackets (Real Housewives of Salt Lake City‘s Jen Shah seemingly targeted lower income people), but the whole time I was reading the epic tale of a woman and her shoebox and her $50,000, I couldn’t stop thinking: This didn’t happen to you despite your intelligence; it happened to you because you’re rich. The world caters to the wealthy, giving them fewer reasons to be skeptical of systems and institutions — or people pretending to be those systems and institutions.

No one puts $50,000 in a shoebox in Apples Never Fall, but a wealthy person does get scammed — sort of. The show hinges on the Delaneys, a tennis family who for many years ran a tennis academy in West Palm Beach. When Joy Delaney (Annette Bening) goes missing, her adult children — Amy (Alison Brie), Troy (Jake Lacy), Logan (Conor Merrigan Turner), and Brooke (Essie Randles) think it could have something to do with Savannah (Georgia Flood), the woman who randomly lived with Joy and her husband Stan (Sam Neill) for several weeks a little less than a year before Joy disappears under suspicious circumstances. Or, well, it wasn’t all that random on Savannah’s side of things. She targeted Stan and Joy and worked her way into their lives intentionally, for reasons that become one of the show’s mysteries to unspool. To viewers and to the four adult children, it’s obvious Savannah is manipulating and lying to Joy. But Joy doesn’t see it. Savannah is kind to her. She does little things around the house that her children never did: washing dishes, cooking for her, making her coffee, pouring her wine, talking to her.

Savannah, at least at first, isn’t really getting anything tangible by way of money out of this other than getting to live in the Delaney’s gorgeous house and reap the benefits of their casually upper class life in West Palm Beach. She’s more so an emotional scammer, seemingly getting off on the instability she instills in the Delaney family. It does eventually turn out that Savannah has a connection to the Delaneys’ past, but I almost wish it didn’t. I was more interested in Savannah when she was just a manipulative woman executing a mostly emotional scam on a perfect target: a wealthy mother who feels invisible. She does eventually get some money, but she’s almost reluctant to take it, and it doesn’t seem to be her primary goal here.

The series weaves between its two timelines: the present, after Joy goes missing when her family tries to piece together what happened, and the past, these weeks of Savannah living with the Delaneys and sowing unrest. The children immediately think Savannah has something to do with it and then, gradually, suspect their own father. A rift emerges between the older siblings (Amy and Troy) and the youngest (Brooke and Logan), Amy and Troy’s childhood memories far more tainted by their father’s violence and frequent absence. Brooke and Logan, though also subjected to their father’s obsession with winning, place him on a pedestal.

Now, before I go any further, I have to say this: The show is not good. This is hardly Big Little Lies, a series I unabashedly loved, even with a story conceived of by the same author and some similar beachside thriller aesthetics and themes. Brie, Lacey, Neill, and Bening give particularly strong performances, but there’s only so much they can do with the series’ weak script. Characters speak in clunky dialogue and exposition. It lacks the grit of the similarly Florida-set familial thriller Bloodline and the class tension and excellently executed mordant humor of Big Little Lies.

Some of the chewiest questions posed by the story get hurried along for the sake of a conventional cop-centric prestige television mystery format. The mystery of what happened to Joy is less interesting than this tension between the children and their father. The fact that they suspect him as capable of murder says so much about who he is and how the family functions, always hoarding secrets and constantly turning on one another, treating life and relationships like a tennis match to be won.

The familial drama at the core of Apples Never Fall is actually quite juicy, hinging on one of Stan’s star students firing him as a coach and going on to greatness. That familial drama is also decidedly specifically of the upper class variety, but the story doesn’t really grapple with that in an interesting or nuanced way. We’re made to believe Joy falls for Savannah’s charms because she feels undervalued by her family, and while there’s some narrative weight to that, much like the shoebox scam story, I kept feeling like part of the puzzle was missing, like issues of class weren’t being considered enough. Does Savannah act like a dutiful daughter for Joy or does she act like a live-in maid? Does Joy not seem to relish the idea of saving a young woman in distress who, supposedly, has nothing? Sure, part of why Joy dismisses her children’s concerns she’s being grifted is because Savannah has not asked for money. But there are perhaps more convincing reasons Joy likes having her around and ignores the red flags, even if the show itself doesn’t really understand that. And if Savannah asked Joy to put $50,000 in a shoebox, I think she’d do it.

Despite the structural device of each episode being named for a member of the Delaney family, we never get to see any of them on a super deep level. The psychological underpinnings of the series really are quite compelling, but the writing barely scratches the surface of them. There are attempts to complicate each Delaney, but they’re heavy-handed. Amy, for example, is self-obsessed and often regarded by her siblings as melodramatic, but then we learn in a flashback that she has a history of self harm. Some of the best character work in the series concerns Joy, who is at her most captivating not when we’re feeling sorry for her and how her family treats her but when we see her flaws, too, when it seems she might just be as self-absorbed and manipulative as the rest of them. This is a tennis family after all, and tennis is either an individual sport or one played in pairs; the Delaneys operate largely in self-serving ways, occasionally making alliances with one another when it serves them but rarely acting like the team they pretend to be.

As the resident Gay Sibling, Brooke injects some queerness into the show. She’s engaged to restaurant owner Gina (Paula Andrea Placido, from Generation Q!), and the twist centered on Brooke and revealed at the end of episode three is a highlight of the series even if it only ends up being just a plot device rather than saying anything meaningful about Brooke, Savannah, and Brooke’s obvious daddy issues.

Money problems and debts are alluded to, and there’s some resentment from Stan toward Troy for being richer than him. But overall, Apples Never Fall isn’t needling into questions of class and power thoroughly enough to really deepen its central mystery beyond by-the-numbers thriller fare. That it has a cast this good and squanders the potential for deeper storytelling is an even bigger offense.

The show is right about one thing for sure: Wealthy white families will make some absolutely terrible choices. They’re rarely thinking of the consequences.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 814 articles for us.

3 Comments

  1. As soon as I saw the bicycle on its side I thought of the Suzanne Morphew case. Suzanne went missing and she and her husband were an older couple too, and the husband was suspected. There was just a bicycle on its side. This happened before the book came out, I’m sure the author used the idea!

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