Murderous secrets bubble to the surface in a show whose whole cannot match its best parts.
“Time is a flat circle.” So said Rust Cohle, one of the icons of modern prestige television. Our pasts and our presents bleed into each other like paints colliding on a canvas. At its best, the new Apple TV+ program Now & Then recognizes and reflects this truth through memorable, bombastic visuals. Unfortunately, too much of Now & Then is weighed down by lackluster storytelling and filmmaking, both of which will lead your mind to wander away from the show you’re watching in the present.
In 2000, six college students went out partying, reveling in a future full of potential. That future vanished in an instant when one of them died in a car crash. The surviving five managed to escape culpability for their role in the crime, but 20 years later, the past has come back to haunt them. Now adults and quite distant the five, including prospective politician Pedro (José María Yazpik) and the cash-strapped Sofia (Maribel Verdú), have gotten a text from a stranger saying that they know about the murder and want lots of money to keep quiet about it.
Trying to placate this blackmailer is where things begin to unravel for the five. Other secrets, including Pedro’s affair with a male lover behind his wife’s back, bubble to the surface. Meanwhile, detective Flora (Rosie Perez), who worked the original investigation 20 years ago, is circling the mystery and getting closer and closer to the truth—but whether solving the case will bring her the closure she’s long sought is an open question.
If there’s one standout visual flourish in Now & Then, it’s the way the past sometimes literally intrudes on the present. The adult Pedro is walking around in his home when all of a sudden a swimmer that his younger self admired speeds past him. In another instance, Pedro shows his son photos of his dorky adolescent self on his phone, and the pictures briefly appear in the frames that decorate the kid’s bedroom.
There’s a welcome unpredictability to how yesteryear can manifest itself in the 2022 sequences, one that goes together with Now & Then’s occasionally maximalist visual tendencies. One slow-motion sequence of swimmers gracefully leaping off into a pool against a black backdrop is especially striking, reminiscent of Paolo Sorrentino’s work in its precise blocking and framing. When Now & Then embraces imagery as BIG as its melodramatic premise, it clicks.
Unfortunately, too often too much of Now & Then‘s craft and storytelling that proves significantly less idiosyncratic. A chase scene featuring Sofia in a run-down hotel, for instance, has no weight or excitement to it thanks to the flatness of its camerawork. Most of the conversations between the main characters are framed in a similarly bland manner, with little panache in the frame or editing and unenergetic dialogue.
Speaking of dialogue, the writing for Now & Then is where the show unravels. Like so many modern streaming programs, it feels like a story meant for film that’s been stretched out to eight hours. It’s filler-heavy, something especially apparent in the dramatically inert sequences set in 2000 between Flora and her former partner Sullivan (Zeljko Ivanek). Watching them engage in CBS-procedural banter and pursue clues for a case we know they won’t solve never becomes interesting. It just feels like the show is killing time in the hopes of hitting its required episode count.
Even more damaging, though, is the decision to constantly hop between two time periods. While an attention-grabbing idea on paper, in practice Now & Then’slurching between story arcs in 2000 and the present ends up being all style, but no substance. The haphazard shifts between time periods make it difficult to latch onto either version of the lead cast for too long. Just as one character’s storyline gets interesting, Now & Then opts to flashback decades earlier or hop forward to the future. Rather than offering further insight into its characters, Now & Then’s narrative structure undercuts them.
It’s impossible to entirely dismiss Now & Then. Some of its visual flourishes are quite striking and talented performers like Maribel Verdú or Rosie Perez do shining work. Perez is especially excellent. Her present-day scenes quietly depict a woman fixated on an unsolved crime and hardened by decades of both disappointment and determination. Perez conveys the depth of Detective Flora’s history and obsessions with just a quizzical facial expression while examining a crime scene or a dubious tone taken while interrogating a suspect.
While Now & Then is often let down by its own hollow flashiness, Perez’s performance is an example of the program succeeding in subtle moments. Unfortunately, too much of the show opts for excess, especially given just how long it runs. Its title proves unfortunately fitting—it has potential and occasionally meets it, but only occasionally. Too often, it’s a slog.
Now & Then is now streaming on Apple TV+.