‘Apples Never Fall’ Review: Annette Bening Goes Missing in Peacock’s Wonky Limited Series

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By now, viewers should have an idea of what to expect from a limited series adaptation of a Liane Moriarty novel. In the first two dramatic interpretations of her work, “Big Little Lies” in 2017 and “Nine Perfect Strangers” in 2021, audiences were treated to twisting tales featuring ensemble casts, intertwined secrets, explorations of wealth and class, and morally gray characters. So it’s no surprise that “Apples Never Fall,” the newest dramatic entry into the Moriarty canon, delivers all of those familiar components in a new configuration: this time, nearly all the main players in the twisting tale are members of the same family.

But this adaptation falters by prioritizing its central mystery over the family discourse that surrounds it — lessening the emotional resonance of its resolution.

Peacock’s adaptation of “Apples Never Fall” centers on the Delaney family, made up of retired tennis coaches Joy (Annette Bening) and Stan (Sam Neil), and their four adult children: Amy (Alison Brie), Logan (Conor Merrigan Turner), Troy (Jake Lacy), and Brooke (Essie Randles). The title undoubtedly stems from the idiom that finishes “far from the tree,” referring to how children tend to mirror their parents’ behavior, an idea that’s explored in myriad ways over the course of the series. When we first meet the Delaneys, though, it’s in a time of crisis: Joy is missing, and none of her children have any idea where she might be. Stan appears to be lying about her whereabouts and the circumstances surrounding her disappearance seem suspicious; then there’s the fact that many of the Delaneys’ stories keep circling back to a mysterious visitor that Stan and Joy hosted in their home several months back. So far all the makings of a great mystery.

As in the book, the narrative of “Apples Never Fall” jumps back and forth in time. In the present-day timeline, the Delaney siblings work together to figure out what has become of their mother, and why their father is acting so shady. We also watch the events of the previous year play out, starting when an injured young woman knocks on Stan and Joy’s door one night and changes all their lives.

She introduces herself as Savannah (Georgia Flood), a woman fleeing an abusive relationship who decides to seek refuge at the Delaney home simply because the lights were on. It doesn’t take long for Savannah to ingratiate herself to the Delaneys, cooking and cleaning, dipping into their wardrobes, and engaging in long heart-to-hearts with Joy about all the things she’s always longed to discuss with her children. Joy is thrilled to have a new surrogate daughter to mentor, but her children are far less enthusiastic about their parents’ new ward. After all, what sort of single twenty-something woman just appears out of nowhere and moves in with a pair of retirees who were previously strangers? Something smells fishy, and they’re determined to figure out who Savannah really is, and what she really wants with their parents.

As the series volleys back and forth in time (there is so much tennis on this show), each episode focusing on a different Delaney, our understanding of their complicated family dynamic gradually takes shape. Despite being fairly close-knit, each of the Delaneys has a couple skeletons tucked away in their respective closets, some decidedly bigger than others. Savannah hovers around the whole show, becoming so intertwined in the family drama that it becomes difficult to think of an area that isn’t impacted by her presence.

Jake Lacy, Essie Randles, Alison Brie and Conor Merrigan-Turner in “Apples Never Fall.” (Peacock)
Jake Lacy, Essie Randles, Alison Brie and Conor Merrigan-Turner in “Apples Never Fall.” (Peacock)

Moriarty has said that part of what prompted her to write the novel was a true crime podcast that caused her to wonder, “How would you feel if your father was accused of murdering your mother?” That is the question asked in every episode of “Apples Never Fall,” through both incriminating and exonerating lenses. At times, it’s hard to imagine Stan committing such a horrific act, while at others, it’s difficult to believe that he could possibly be innocent.

As is the case with most book-to-screen adaptations, there are a number of significant differences between the novel and the small-screen versions of “Apples Never Fall.” Some are obvious right off the bat: instead of being set in Moriarty’s home country of Australia, the series is set in West Palm Beach, Florida. Instead of being separated from her husband, Grant, Brooke is instead engaged to a woman, Gina (Paula Andrea Placido). Instead of teaching at a community college, Logan works at a marina. Troy is having an affair with his boss’s wife, a subplot that does not exist at all in the book. Amy is no longer working as a taste tester, and is now a self-appointed “life coach.” And rather than being stubbornly anti-smartphones, Stan has one on hand at all times, just like everyone else.

Not that any of that should really matter in the grand scheme of things. Whether the source material was a book or an article or a video game, an adaptation needs to stand alone for a brand new audience. Sometimes translating a story from one medium to another means making changes, and plenty of authors — from Rick Riordan (“Percy Jackson and the Olympians”) to Julia Quinn (“Bridgerton”) to Moriarty herself — have publicly defended the alterations that were made to their work when adapting it for television. There are a million reasons behind these sorts of changes, and in the hands of the right creative team, they tend to work in the adaptation’s favor.

But something important went missing in the course of this book’s small-screen makeover (besides Joy, of course). While a novel can rely on its characters’ internal thoughts to drive its story, a TV series needs them to act externally in order to convey what’s happening. And quite a bit of Moriarty’s book is internal, as characters question their own previously held beliefs and assumptions given new evidence. That wouldn’t work on TV. In making the internal external, nearly all of the Delaneys come out looking worse than their literary counterparts, with Brooke and Troy faring poorest of all.

Not every character in an ensemble series needs to be likable. Quite the contrary; clashing personalities breed conflict, which is essential for a successful series. However, in this particular family saga, which wants its audience to not only invest in the answers behind Joy’s disappearance, but also in the Delaneys themselves, it feels as though the show leaned into one at the expense of the other.

That said, “Apples Never Fall” isn’t a bad way to spend a few hours of life. At seven episodes long, each clocking in at around 50 minutes, it’s a well-paced mystery featuring solid performances from each of its cast members. Bening and Brie stand out, with Randles and Merrigan-Turner admirably holding their own alongside their more-famous castmates.

Sam Neill in "Apples Never Fall" on Peacock
Sam Neill in “Apples Never Fall” (Peacock)

But as the series concluded — also different from the book, and completely devoid of its COVID-centric denouement — I was left wondering if I even cared about this family, or if they were just a slow-motion trainwreck that I was voyeuristically watching enter its final stage of destruction. Sure, we learn what happened to Joy, but does that even matter if most of the Delaneys didn’t really learn or grow at all while she was missing?

The thing about “Apples Never Fall,” in all its forms, is that the mystery was always secondary to the family. Regardless of what happened to Joy, the point of telling her story is spotlighting the Delaneys. For its television adaptation, the mystery takes center stage, which feels like the wrong call. Because the mystery was never the most interesting part of this story. The Delaneys are the story, for better or for worse. Without a reason to invest in the family, the whole experience feels like it’s missing something.

So although “Apples Never Fall” checks a lot of the boxes for a compelling series, once the mystery wraps up, viewers are still left hungering for more.

“Apples Never Fall” premieres Thursday, March 14, on Peacock.

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