Franklin and Irene York have a portal in their backyard that transports them through space and allows them to spend their nights gazing at the landscape of another world. For years, they were content to just cap off the occasional day by visiting the stars, as they put it, not unlike how one might watch a sunset from behind their house. But when Amazon Prime Video's Night Sky begins, Irene, played by Sissy Spacek, is ready to explore more.
"It's been an enduring mystery," showrunner Daniel C. Connolly said about the nature of the portal in the Yorks' yard during an Emmy FYC panel for the series that Metacritic moderated. "I think it's an all-consuming one on many levels."
After decades of a loving marriage and the tragic loss of their adult son, Franklin and Irene have settled into a routine, living by themselves in a quiet area in Illinois. A recent fall has left Irene slower-moving, slower-healing, and simply a bit more muted overall. Her loving, doting husband Franklin, played by J. K. Simmons, has been by her side the entire time, taking care of her and just wanting the best for her, but he is not as interested in the stars anymore as she is, or perhaps he even once was.
That all changes when, at the end of the first episode of Night Sky, Irene heads to the portal alone and finds a mysterious young man (Jude, played by Chai Hansen) on the floor, in need of help. It appears he came through the portal, which raises a lot of questions about him.
"When Jude arrives, it's the first time that there's real push and pull in their relationship; he comes in between them. And I think Franklin is really protective of Irene; she's so vulnerable in every way because she's so all-in — this is what she's been waiting for and she wants to know what's going on and she wants to have time to do it. And that causes conflict between them, and conflict is good in drama," Spacek said during the panel. "It's like Scenes From a Marriage in space."
Although Night Sky comes with such inherent science-fiction elements as the portals (no, that plural is not a typo: as the show unfolds Franklin and Irene won't be the only duo guarding such a structure), executive producer and writer Holden Miller says the show was really conceived as a relationship drama first. When constructing the eight-episode season, it became about "mixing what we referred to as the magical and the mundane in the show."
"The sci-fi elements were really a way for us to dive into the themes surrounding that relationship that we were interested in: mortality, enduring love, family. And it felt right for these characters that their discovery was something that had more to do with its effect on their relationship and its effect on their time, and it's something they can do together," he explained.
The grounded, human, relationship story at the center of Night Sky was an attractive one to both Spacek and Simmons.
"What I loved most about the script was that it really took its time in getting to know its characters. Slowly over the course of future episodes it reveals the back story, a piece at a time. The end of the first episode is when the drama begins; up until then I thought it was really bold and daring that it gives an audience credit to just sit and watch a story that, at first, just seems to be about these two old farts in their house in the middle of nowhere in Illinois and didn't feel the need to have something blow up at the end of the first act in order to keep the audience tuned in," Simmons said.
Both actors have been in decades-long relationships themselves (Spacek for five decades, Simmons for three), which is real-life experience that lends itself to crafting the "lived in" relationship Franklin and Irene have, despite these actors never having worked together before. Franklin and Irene's relationship has endured a lot, and they "share viewpoints on many things," Miller said, but they also have differences that speak to "how they complete each other."
A major difference is how they respond to Jude's arrival: Irene wants to get to know him, perhaps even mother him a bit, and get to the bottom of the mystery that surrounds him. Franklin, on the other hand, is much more skeptical.
"When anything from the outside world comes in, it's a disruption and an unwelcome one," Simmons said.
This leads them down slightly different paths during the season, opening the door for additional character connections, such as with their granddaughter Denise (Kiah McKirnan) and neighbor Byron (Adam Bartley).
And then there are Stella (Julieta Zylberberg) and Toni (Rocío Hernández), a mother-daughter duo living in a different part of the world from Franklin and Irene, and who are from a long line of people tasked with guarding a portal. Initially, including their story was a way to "provide another point of view into this special, wondrous thing," Connolly said, but the two storylines will converge by the end of the season, which intensifies the drama (and danger) for all involved. It also deepens the mystery of the portals and, more specifically, Jude's involvement with them.
"Jude is the mystery of the first season: Who is he, how did he get here, what does that mean? We wanted to leave that open and not really answer it until we have to," Connolly said. "There's always something new around the corner about Jude."
Night Sky premieres May 20 on Prime Video.