Carole & Tuesday is one of those things where they should have either built it up more or stripped it down. It's easy to see why it's been well-received: at its core is a genuinely sweet story about two young women trying to make something of their own in a world not designed for them. But it surrounds that core with too much misdirection, too many threads that don't go anywhere, and not enough understanding of why and how SF elements exist in a story. It's a strangely limp effort from Shinichiro Watanabe, whose previous shows have exhibited heedless energy. This one feels both overstuffed and underfed. And even if it's only the first of more parts promised, it doesn't bode well.
They just wanna make tunes
The problem, again, is that at core this isn't a bad story. Potentially clichéd, but few great stories begin with original ideas anyway. Tuesday is the pampered daughter of an ambitious politician, but one day she grabs her prized acoustic guitar, sneaks out of her gilded cage, and runs off to the big city. Carole, an orphan from Earth (did we mention this is taking place on Mars in the future? couldn't guess, could you?), struggles through a succession of dead-end part-time jobs while busking with her keyboard on the street. They find each other, and something instantly clicks: they share not only a sense of being alone in the world, but a common need to create. And so they jam together, and just like that out come songs.
Does it make sense for the two of them to even try and dream big? Their appeal's clearly meant to be timeless, but they live in a world that rewards virality and flash-in-the-pan fame. Ironically, that's how they get their first shot at stardom: they sneak into an auditorium to use the grand piano there (it's miles better than Carole's porta-keyboard, she reasons), and get bodily thrown out, but not before the tech, a kid named Roddy about their age, films them and uploads the results to the world. The girls catch the eye of a has-been, the (very) former music manager Gus Goldman, now gone to alcohol and reminiscing about a past he probably never had, but he takes one look at these two and decides there's a there there.
Carole and Tuesday have a hard time telling if they should be elated or worried about Gus barging into their lives and insisting he's going to help them find stardom. Worried, probably, as most of Gus's plans fizzle bigtime. A meeting with a prominent (and self-important) DJ ends with the girls nearly setting fire to his place. When they hire an AI assistant to shoot a music video, it turns out the AI in question is essentially the in-universe version of a Nigerian email scammer. But then they get a genuinely lucky break: a gig at a venue that gets them real applause, that in turn lands them a slot at a popular music festival (even if it's only as a substitute for a notoriously unreliable rocker), that in turn gets them signed up to try out for a popular TV talent contest.
These two and their rise to something like fame are contrasted with the story of another young star-to-be — Angela Carpenter, a model being molded into a singer by way of an AI-programming Svengali named Tao. Angela's not doing any of this out of some great need; it's mostly because she's under her mother's thumb. Worse, she turns out to be very good at emulating the worst examples of the people around her, as when she treats her devoted assistant like dirt chiefly because that seems like what people in her position do. But she has talent, and it's formidable enough that whether her music is generated by AI, and Carole & Tuesday's is not, may become moot.
Go big or go home
Part of me would say, a key problem with Carole & Tuesday is that it shows a future that looks more or less like what we have now. Another part of me, though, says that is more or less the idea. Science fiction is not really about the future; it's about looking at what we have now through lenses and mirrors that magnify and distort, the better to think uninhibitedly about it all. But the SF details in the show end up being so consistently low-key, so underused as story elements instead of just set dressing, they turn into throwaways, and so the story's use of SF at all doesn't justify itself.
Consider: Angela's AI-driven music writing isn't even developed into an actual story element. The closest we get to that is a couple of throwaway lines near the end that seem like a foreshadowing of something they were saving for next season (if there is even one); why sit on it? Other future details — the omnipresence of robots and AI in daily life — are either exactly like what we have now, or could have been swapped out with present-day elements and lost nothing. Again, maybe that was the point, but if so it seems too thin of one to do much with. And so on down the line.
Consequently, the stuff that does work, if only in miniature, needs no SF to amp it up anyway: the relationship between the girls, the haplessness of their self-appointed savior, the nods towards how even being a little famous can be bad for the soul. This last comes by way of a fellow contestant in the talent competition, an ardent Tuesday stan, for whom Tuesday has no really good strategy to deal with. And the show's creators spent time and money to get original music that's good enough to convince real-world audiences as much as it does in-universe ones. I liked all of that, and I think I would have liked it more if the show hadn't kept getting in its own way.
At the core of the show is an idea that deserves a good treatment: two young women trying to do something sincere and personal in a world that values neither sincerity nor true personality, but instead manufactured attention and self-indulgent noise. A real-world treatment of that idea could have been moving; a science fiction treatment of that idea could really have gone places. But Carole & Tuesday feels like it stopped halfway between those two destinations. It needed to either go big or go home.