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Night Sky review – Sissy Spacek and JK Simmons need their own eight-hour show

JK Simmons and Sissy Spacek in Night Sky.
House of York … JK Simmons and Sissy Spacek in Night Sky. Photograph: Chuck Hodes/Prime Video

Amazon’s new series, Night Sky, is really three shows in one. It’s a love story about a devoted, ageing couple who are facing their last years together. It’s an intergalactic sci-fi mystery involving portals to other planets. And it’s an intercontinental thriller involving various secret societies with conflicting interests re: said portals.

The first of these works really well. So well, in fact, that when the action moves away from the couple it’s hard not to resent it. Much of this is to do with the fact that the pair, retired school teacher Irene York and her carpenter husband Franklin, are played by Sissy Spacek and JK Simmons. Great separately, they are something special together in this. You can feel the Yorks’ whole half-century together from the moment they enter a scene. The actors bring their everything to understatement, evoking their enduring love, and the anxieties beginning to nibble round the edges as the tribulations and indignities of old age start to gather. The script is deft, catching the shorthand of long-time partners while never drifting into sentimentality, and in broader terms capturing the intimacy of small-town American life – with all the advantages and disadvantages that come with that, especially if you’ve never left.

The Yorks still live in the family home that we see them – in flashback – move into and start making their own some time in the late 70s. As Irene’s mobility in the present day decreases after a bad fall and Franklin starts to suffer memory losses, they come under increasing pressure to sell the house and maybe even move into the local assisted living facility. “We always have new spaces opening up!” one of the staff tells Irene chirpily.

It seems at first that they don’t want to leave because they have been guarding a secret. In their shed is the entrance to a tunnel that brings them out to a viewing station overlooking an unknown, desolately beautiful planet. They have visited it 856 times, according to Franklin, but never dared open the door that would allow them to step out on to it.

But we also learn that it is the house where they raised their son, Michael, and maybe even where they lost him to suicide 20 years before. The portal and the peace they find there takes on new meaning as a refuge from grief. As Irene takes stock of the couple’s life together – and is increasingly drawn to seeing what’s on the other side of the door – we seem to be heading for a heartfelt allegorical tale that will allow Spacek and Simmons all the time and space they need to show us what talent and a half century of experience can really deliver.

Unfortunately, the other two shows come crashing in. When Irene visits the viewing platform with the intention of heading into the great beyond, she finds a semi-conscious blood-covered man on the floor and brings him back to the house. The mysterious stranger – Jude (Chai Hansen) is soon up and prowling round the house and hacking pieces of futuristic technology out of his flesh so that he is free to embark on a personal quest without interference.

Then we cut to what – for far too long – seems to be a totally separate sideplot in Argentina. Stella (Julieta Zylberberg) is living a reclusive life that baffles and frustrates her teenage daughter Toni (Rocío Hernández) until Stella lets her in on the family secret: she is guarding a portal, set in the church near their isolated home, to an alien galaxy. When a first-rate piece of nameless malevolence arrives in the shape of terrifying Polish actor Piotr Adamcyzk, a sprawling narrative involving divine prophesies, extraterrestrial jiggery-pokery and those warring secret societies begins and comes to form the larger part of the series.

Despite this, it still feels constrained, never quite becoming the full-blooded X-Files-meets-Da-Vinci Code madness you want it to be and which might make up for the loss of the Yorks’ quieter but heartfelt and more compelling story. It’s as if the full fruition of each of the three storylines has been sacrificed to the other. Revelations are doggedly and obviously withheld to drag out the suspense, which just dissipates it. Such clear attempts at manipulation make the whole thing more of an exercise in frustration than anything else.

Spacek and Simmons remain Night Sky’s shining stars. If they could be hived off and the Yorks given their own eight-hour, sci-fi- and conspiracy-free series simply to show us how they navigate the last decade or so of life before it winks out, that would be wonderful. But I suppose that’s like asking for the moon.