'The Crowded Room' Is Empty

Created by Akiva Goldsman

Starring Tom Holland, Amanda Seyfried, Christopher Abbott, Sasha Lane, Jason Isaacs. Emmy Rossum, Will Chase

Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

BY Prabhjot BainsPublished Jun 7, 2023

The epitome of meekness, Danny Sullivan (Tom Holland) is in dire need of an identity. Instead, he's moulded to a violent, destructive degree by the varying personalities that surround him — or is he?

The Crowded Room, adapted from the Daniel Keyes novel The Minds of Billy Milligan, interrogates the manic, frenzied psyche of Danny, a young man arrested after a shooting in 1979 New York who hopelessly attempts to explain himself to academic interrogator Rya Goodwin (Amanda Seyfried). He insists he never pulled the trigger, despite a swath of contradictory evidence that places him at Rockefeller Center with gun in hand. But a strange air permeates the interrogation room, cementing a strong sense that Danny is not quite what he seems and perhaps not solely to blame.

The first five episodes put viewers directly into Danny's hectic mindset, rendering us just as lost and confused as he is. Rarely do we cut back to the central interrogation; instead, we are taken through a stream of incidents that navigate his frayed relationship with his abusive stepfather (Will Chase), dependence on friends Mike (Sam Vartholomeos) and Jonny (Levon Hawke), and run-ins with his new roommates, a Krav Maga practicing Yitzak (Lior Raz) and a tortured Ariana (Sasha Lane). The only constant positive in his life has been his mother, played wistfully by Emmy Rossum, whose love and care are snuffed out by her overbearing husband.

What begins as a by-the-numbers high school drama (with all the usual romantic entanglements and hijinks) quickly pivots into dark territory before becoming a surreal legal thriller. Through a series of flashbacks and faint recollections, the show attempts to patiently unfold, doling out morsels of information in the hopes of developing into a thoughtful exploration of trauma. The series, particularly the first half, is all over the place and haphazardly delivered, doing a lot but not well. The show's ambitions are mired in a middling mystery that feels stretched too thin, even at just 10 episodes. As The Crowded Room's title suggests, the limited series is crowded with fascinating ideas, moments and performances, but they are obfuscated by a slogging, non-linear structure that never becomes greater than the sum of its parts — blunting the impact of its look at the damaging ways humans cope with the traumas that threaten to define their lives.

The derivative nature of the show is especially evident in the scenes where Danny courts his crush, Annabelle (Emma Laird). These moments feel lifted from an entirely different show, bringing the pace to a halt. This impression is magnified by the sixth episode ("Rya"), which switches focus to Danny's interrogator and recounts how she found herself questioning Danny in the first place. It's a decision that brings the show to a standstill in order to explain the "twist" it's been building up to. It's so lazily and glacially relayed that it zaps the revelation of any shock value.

Moreover, the reveal itself is also terribly easy to predict, nipping the show's desire to sustain tension in the bud. Once audiences catch onto the series's peculiar take on mental illness, the central mystery becomes pedestrian, lacking intrigue, flair and, most importantly, oomph. As a result, The Crowded Room fails to become anything more than a dull show about something truly remarkable.

Holland, armed with a boyish, shape-shifting charm, doesn't even bring forward the show's greatest performance. That honour goes to Christopher Abbot's portrayal of Stan Camisa, Danny's pill-popping, mustachioed public defender whose late-series appearance injects the show with a much-needed, vigorous jolt. His turn brings forward some of the strongest sequences in The Crowded Room, with his darkly comic aura clashing against Rya's wide-eyed optimism to unearth a strong commentary on the justice system's neglect of mental health. Yet, Stan is done a grave disservice by the show's end, as it unceremoniously sidesteps his impact on the narrative — something that's indicative of a series that constantly betrays its greatest elements for the safe and sentimental alternative.

While likeable, Seyfried's performance is one-note, though that's most likely due to the writing. Jason Issacs is delightful as a posh, clever Brit, while Sasha Lane exudes vulnerability as the deeply troubled Ariana. However, the impeccable cast simply isn't enough to prop up the shoddily constructed mystery, which loses steam far before its mawkish conclusion.

Kornél Mundruczó directs the first two episodes with a flair that is sorely missing in all the others. The second episode, "Sanctuary," features a subtle long take (reminiscent of his work in Pieces of a Woman), traversing its underground disco with a sultry, dingy edge that perfectly captures the open-air sex club that was New York City in the '70s. Artistic flourishes like these are nowhere to be seen in later episodes directed by Mona Fastvold, Brady Corbet and Alan Taylor, each failing to stand out as a result. Though the show's high production budget is clear, realizing its period setting with a lived-in sensibility, it utterly lacks a personal, stylistic touch that would have made it more memorable.

There are faint glimmers of a striking, thought-provoking drama here, but they are overshadowed by a series that relies on played-out tropes to fuel its central mystery. It's a shame, because a few more dollops of subtlety and a single, confident directorial vision could have cemented this star-studded show as a must-watch. Instead, it's doomed to waft in obscurity.

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