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Annette Bening Mystery ‘Apples Never Fall’ Is a Propulsive Beach Read You Can Binge: TV Review

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The Australian author Liane Moriarty provided the source material for the first season of “Big Little Lies,” one of recent TV’s great success stories. Since that then-limited series exploded in 2017, dominating the discourse with a supernova of star power, conspicuous consumption and domestic strife, producers have continued to mine Moriarty’s catalog in search of more gold. Thus far, Hollywood has come up short. The second season of “Big Little Lies,” which Moriarty herself conceived with screenwriter David E. Kelley, was a disappointment; Hulu’s take on “Nine Perfect Strangers,” another Moriarty novel, was a collection of big names and backstories in search of a compelling throughline. A follow-up is nonetheless in the works, as well as takes on Moriarty’s books “The Husband’s Secret” and “The Last Anniversary.” Moriarty’s métier — affluent communities imperiled by violence and scandal — is still catnip to readers and viewers alike, but the creative trajectory of post-“Big Little Lies” adaptations has had a downward slant.

Thankfully, the Peacock series “Apples Never Fall” brings this cold streak to an end. With a less glitzy cast and a platform with a far narrower reach than HBO, its release is unlikely to equal the impact of “Big Little Lies.” Yet more than any Moriarty series since, “Apples Never Fall” captures the potential of a beach read you can binge. The scenic setting and propulsive pace are effective cues to turn off one’s brain, but the emotional foundation is solid enough for its central family to resonate as real people, however soapy their struggles may seem.

“Apples Never Fall” begins with the sudden disappearance of Joy Delaney (Annette Bening, finally heeding the siren song of the marquee miniseries led by a movie star). Until her retirement just a few months prior, Joy had spent decades running a tennis academy in West Palm Beach with her husband Stan (Sam Neill) — like her, an ex-professional player. Joy and Stan’s four children each carry the emotional baggage of being raised by elite athletes. Troy (Jake Lacy) has channeled his competitive instincts into venture capital; black sheep Amy (Alison Brie, playing against Type A) can’t hold down a job; Brooke (Essie Randles) has a physical therapy practice she won’t admit is flailing; Logan (Conor Merrigan Turner) can’t break out of his family’s orbit, turning down a chance to start fresh to stay close to home.

These tensions could make for a grounded family drama, but they’re heightened by a series of sensational twists. Joy’s unexplained absence splits the action into two timelines, helpfully labeled “Now” and “Then.” In the present, Stan’s history of emotional neglect makes him not just a subpar husband, but a potential suspect. And in the past, Joy and Stan take in a woman named Savannah (Georgia Flood) who claims to be fleeing an abusive relationship. While Joy takes a shine to Savannah, her presence attracts the suspicion of the other Delaneys — and eventually, the detectives tasked with finding out where Joy has gone.

Working with directors Chris Sweeney and Dawn Shadforth, showrunner Melanie Marnich deftly weaves these threads together. Last year, the dark comedy “Bad Sisters” used a similar structure and sometimes strained to balance characters’ knowledge of what’s already happened with gradually revealing those events to the audience. Over a more condensed, seven-episode run, “Apples Never Fall” feels less effortful as it toggles between these two phases of the Delaneys’ lives. Overcomplicated chronology is now a cliché of modern TV storytelling, but a good potboiler knows how to put a cliché to good use. 

After the premiere, each episode of “Apples Never Fall” is named for and devoted to a different member of the Delaney clan. The show is not particularly specific about the sport of tennis, but both the individual Delaneys and the dynamics between them quickly come into focus. As the older kids, Troy and Amy remember their father as an aggrieved and angry man. His dream ended by an ACL injury, Stan used to abandon Joy and the kids for days at a time until the academy gave him a new identity as a coach and community leader. Where Brooke and Logan idealize their dad, their siblings reflexively side with their mom. Troy, in particular, harbors resentment over Stan’s mentorship of Harry Haddad (Giles Matthey), a prodigy turned Grand Slam winner who abruptly fired Stan as a teen. Stan blames his eldest, a peer of Harry’s who chafed at his father’s favoritism toward an outsider. Having spoken openly about his diagnosis with advanced blood cancer, currently in remission, Neill gives depth to a man looking back on his life with regret, even if Stan doesn’t process or express it in the healthiest ways.

As adults, these fault lines have festered into lasting wounds that are exploited by Savannah and influence an increasingly public investigation. Joy feels taken for granted, so she overlooks her grateful guest’s many red flags; recent Oscar nominee Bening radiates warmth as a maternal figure confronting an empty nest. Years earlier, Troy refused to loan Logan money to buy the academy off their parents, part of a pattern of using money to solve problems he’s too emotionally stunted to work out himself. (In a standout performance, Lacy essentially makes Troy a more sensitive, sympathetic version of his prickish rich kid in “The White Lotus.”) Even dramatic tropes like infidelity feel organically incorporated. You can’t throw a bright-green ball in the Delaney house without hitting someone having an ill-advised affair, but when two characters bond over the self-destructive impulse that led them to step out on their spouses, it’s a touching moment of solidarity over the mutual damage many family members share, whether or not they’re in the headlines.

Like most Moriarty yarns, “Apples Never Fall” resolves with a twist. The answer to the driving question of where Joy has gone ultimately doesn’t live up to the season that precedes it, ending the show on an abrupt and anticlimactic note. But the series never feels like it hinges on its conclusion or holds back useful context for the sake of a reveal, as many puzzle boxes do. Even if the destination is something of a letdown, the trip through Florida country clubs and one family’s buried secrets is scenic, engaging and speedy enough to be worth the ride.

All seven episodes of “Apples Never Fall” are now available to stream on Peacock.