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Part fairy tale, part horror, 'The Changeling' is a drama that mostly satisfies

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. LaKeith Stanfield from the movie "Get Out" and the TV series "Atlanta" stars in the new Apple TV+ series "The Changeling." He portrays a young man who achieves his dreams and goals for romance, marriage and parenthood, only to have them descend into nightmares. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The new Apple TV+ series "The Changeling," like the Victor LaValle book on which it's based, is a slippery story to categorize. It's a modern fairy tale set mostly in and around New York City. But it's also a romance and a horror story and a parable and a story about a person on a quest, which means, when you think about it, that it really is a modern fairy tale or an updated Greek myth. And for the most part, it's a very satisfying one.

The creator and writer of this eight-part TV adaptation is Kelly Marcel, whose writing credits range from "50" Shades Of Grey and the "Venom" movies to "Cruella" and the delightful "Saving Mr. Banks," the story about the making of Disney's "Mary Poppins." Here, she doesn't shy away at all from the depths and subtexts of LaValle's novel. Very effectively, she weaves in everything from the weight of parental responsibilities to the gloom of postpartum depression, along with sudden bursts of disturbingly intense violence. Along the way, there are witches and mysterious faraway lands and even a storybook type of narration provided for the TV version by author LaValle himself.

It's a tale that begins sweetly like a rom-com, then veers down a dark and twisted path. Actually, "The Changeling" begins by telling two different but related love stories. The first is about a young woman, Lillian, who marries and has a son. The son is named Apollo, and eventually, as a young man in New York, he meets and pursues a librarian named Emma. Apollo is played by LaKeith Stanfield from "Get Out" and "Atlanta." Emma is played by Clark Backo from the comedy series "Letterkenny." And in this scene, on their first date, Apollo looks deeply into Emma's eyes, then blurts out his true feelings.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CHANGELING")

LAKEITH STANFIELD: (As Apollo) Wow. One of your eyes is bigger than the other.

CLARK BACKO: (As Emma) Oh. God.

STANFIELD: (As Apollo) What? That's not a bad thing. That's a beautiful thing. I think it's gorgeous. Frankly, you're the most gorgeous person I've ever seen, ever known. I mean, your soul is...

BACKO: (As Emma) My soul?

STANFIELD: (As Apollo) Yeah.

BACKO: (As Emma) Dude, no.

STANFIELD: (As Apollo) I mean, think of the kids we'd have.

BACKO: (As Emma) Kids?

STANFIELD: (As Apollo) I never cared if I had a boy, a girl, Twins....

BACKO: (As Emma) OK. Apollo?

STANFIELD: (As Apollo) ...Triplets, quadruplets...

BACKO: (As Emma) Stop. Seriously.

STANFIELD: (As Apollo) What? I mean, some people want to be an astronaut. Some people want to be a scientist. Some people want to be a zookeeper.

BACKO: (As Emma) A zookeeper?

STANFIELD: (As Apollo) I just want to be...

BACKO: (As Emma) That's pretty cool.

STANFIELD: (As Apollo) ...A good father to the kid I ended up having.

BIANCULLI: Very quickly, just as "The Changeling" gets into gear, Apollo does have a son, but Emma has a problem connecting with the child. Shades of "Rosemary's Baby" creep in. And then, as the characters' visions and nightmares get more sinister and threatening, so do echoes of some more mythic, primordial stories - "Rumpelstiltskin," "Rapunzel." Before long, Apollo's family dream is shattered, and he sets out to discover what went wrong. The path leads him to secret social media sites and a mist-shrouded island. And like Alice in Wonderland or Dorothy in Oz, he meets lots of puzzling characters along the way. One of them, a standout, is Cal, played by Jane Kaczmarek from "Malcolm In The Middle." She tells Apollo to take warning from old folktales.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CHANGELING")

JANE KACZMAREK: (As Cal) So how do we protect our children? That's what "Rapunzel" is all about. That's the question that it's asking.

STANFIELD: (As Apollo) Clearly, I'm the wrong person to ask.

KACZMAREK: (Cal) You know the husband? He protects himself over the baby. The baby gets snatched. And then the enchantress, I mean, she won't let that kid go anywhere in the world. She's like a helicopter parent. And still, that prince, he manages to find a way inside. I mean, no matter what we do, the world finds a way in. So how do we protect our children? That's a question that has been asked for hundreds of years, ever since fairy tales were first told around an evening fire. The new fears are the old fears, and the old fears are ancient. But when it's our turn to face them, they are made new.

BIANCULLI: In tone, "The Changeling" is close to another Apple TV+ drama series called "Servant" and even closer to the HBO horror series "Lovecraft Country." But the closer "The Changeling" gets to facing its demons - in a literal sense - the less it lives up to its own built-up expectations. Like so many movies and TV adaptations of Stephen King stories, the ending here isn't so much a climax as a letdown. But that's not true of the performances. LaKeith Stanfield and Clark Backo as Apollo and Emma are haunting and memorable, as are Adina Porter and Alexis Louder, who play the older and younger versions, respectively, of Apollo's mother, Lillian. They all, like Kaczmarek, make "The Changeling" a TV story worth your time.

MOSLEY: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University. He reviewed the new Apple TV+ series "The Changeling," starring LaKeith Stanfield. On Monday's show, former model, designer and diversity advocate Bethann Hardison. She's credited with helping to jumpstart and support the careers of models like Naomi Campbell, Tyson Beckford and Iman. She talks to me about her career in fashion, which spans more than 50 years. I hope you can join us to keep up with what's on the show and to get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram @nprfreshair.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRELI LAGRENE GIPSY PROJECT'S "PLACE DU TERTRE")

MOSLEY: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Adam Stanislavski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Teresa Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya MOSLEY.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRELI LAGRENE GIPSY PROJECT'S "PLACE DU TERTRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.