Annette Bening’s Helicopter Mom Dominates Apples Never Fall

In the new mystery miniseries Apples Never Fall, Annette Bening’s fantastic performance can’t save an otherwise bland “whodunit” thriller.

Annette Bening as Joy Delaney in Apples Never Fall. (Rotten Tomatoes TV / YouTube)

Annette Bening gives an excellent performance in the new seven-episode Peacock miniseries Apples Never Fall, but she shows up all the lesser acting around her to a distracting degree. She plays Joy Delaney, one half of a star pair of married tennis coaches whose academy attracted top players and made “the Delaneys” a force to be reckoned with in the sport.

When we meet them, the Delaneys are retiring in teary triumph after what seems to have been a long, golden career, surrounded by their loving grown-up children. The rest of the series will destroy this glowing image as family secrets and lies come tumbling out in the wake of two mysterious incidents. First, the arrival at the Delaney home of a young woman named Savannah (Georgia Flood), who seems to be the slightly bloodied victim of marital abuse and, rescued by the Delaneys, is soon ensconced in their home. And then the second mystery — the disappearance of Joy.

Suspicion immediately falls on Joy’s irascible husband, Stan (Sam Neill), whose angry and high-handed behavior has shaded over into emotional abuse — and occasional physical abuse — of his children. Embittered by a career trajectory that wasn’t nearly as impressive as he’d expected, he’s been taking it out on his family for decades. As Stan, Neill pulls out all the stops in grimacing and stalking around and growling his lines to indicate constant simmering rage underneath attempts to appear like the strong, stable patriarch, but it’s overkill and gets silly fast.

After the first episode under the misleadingly affirming group-portrait title “The Delaneys,” each of the four children and then the two parents get a separate episode. This is savvy, because the structure alone might keep you watching just to see how the whole rapidly deteriorating family situation is looking from the angle of underachieving, boat-dwelling younger son Logan (Conor Merrigan-Turner), ditzy, erratic New Age older daughter Amy (Alison Brie), acerbic, competent younger daughter Brooke (Essie Randles), whose physical therapy business is actually falling apart, or rich, type-A executive older son Troy (Jake Lacy), etc.

There’s a slick, canned quality to all these separate narratives about messy lives, and even to the breakdown of the two children who try to live up to their parents’ judgy competitive ethos of high achievement (Brooke and Troy), versus the two who go the opposite way into erratic, unambitious noncareers (Logan and Amy) so as to escape judgment by refusing to compete. But all are steadily ruining their personal relationships, in a formulaic “unable to give or receive love” consequence of family trauma that’s right out of the therapy playbook.

Flashbacks take us through the way early tennis triumphs got steadily tarnished as Stan tried and failed to mold his sons into tennis champs and ultimately lost control of the academy when his top player deserted him for another coach. And meanwhile, the search for Joy goes on and turns into a likely murder investigation.

The series is based on a same-named book by Liane Moriarty (Nine Perfect Strangers, Big Little Lies), who has a wildly successful track record of writing bestsellers that become hit TV series adaptations. She specializes in tangled multicharacter relationships that, under some sort of high-pressure situation, reveal the lurid hidden lives of all.

Well — fine. It’s a mystery whodunit kind of thing, coasting on the assumption that Joy must be dead or at least seriously in harm’s way and Stan can’t be the perpetrator because he’s too obvious a choice. So is it one of the kids, or Savannah? And by the way, who is Savannah anyway? Nothing about her cover story explaining her sudden appearance can be verified.

Of course, I can’t reveal the ending — that’d be the ultimate spoiler. Though on the other hand, it’s such a rotten ending, it deserves to be spoiled. I’ll simply note that Moriarty and series creator Melanie Marnich (The OA, The Big C, Big Love) tried to have it all ways. A happy ending that’s also rather sad, a broken family yet a healed family, an apparently major crime that’s no crime but is always about to become a crime just to keep the suspense going. Pah! If you’re going to lure people into watching seven episodes of intrigue, you need to commit yourself about what all the intrigue was about. Otherwise there’s nowhere to go in the end but a completely implausible group hug.

Still, Bening can really bring it. She’s playing a distressing character, an aging “helicopter mom” who’s forever trying to manage the family dynamic, glossing over the boiling rivalries and resentments, giving up her own professional dreams in order to smooth her fractious children’s way and make up for her husband’s self-defeating fits of temper. All this giving makes her the family doormat, of course. She drinks too much wine and gets embarrassingly slurry and keeps trying to set up family gatherings that inevitably end badly  and calls her children to check up on them too often — all heartbreakingly familiar behaviors. Bening has a terrific range of expressions to represent subtleties like the slight cracks of pain in the smiling mommy mask and the carefully blank refusal to recognize slights.

This kind of martyrdom can’t go on indefinitely, not in the average TV entertainment, anyway, which is why the soft fizzle of the ending is a particular letdown. Much more should have been done with the narrative power of the finally fed-up mother figure, and Annette Bening was just the actor to have done justice to a certain level of vengeful mayhem.