Okay, nobody obviously likes to hear that you have to wait a while until things start cooking and it's certainly not smart usually to start one's thoughtful analysis with that note but maybe it's good to get it out of the way quickly? Just maybe. We'll get back to that. The Crowded Room, a psychological drama miniseries starring Tom Holland, is loosely inspired by Daniel Keyes' novel 'The Minds Of Billy Milligan' and the true criminal case behind it. Holland's character Danny Sullivan is a young man in his 20s who is preparing to be sentenced for his involvement in a shooting at Rockefeller Plaza in 1979's New York City. Rya Goodwin (Amanda Seyfried) is a psychologist—something that Apple requested not to discuss before airing—who interviews Danny to learn about his life and motives as she's also invested in the legal case about his conviction.
Other major characters in the series are Danny's mom Candy (Emmy Rossum), stepdad Marlin (Will Chase), friends Mike (Sam Vartholomeos) and Jonny (Levon Hawke), roommates Yitzhak (Lior Raz) and Ariana (Sasha Lane), lawyer Stan (Christopher Abbott) and peculiar Englishman Jack (Jason Isaacs). Zachary Golinger plays Danny as a child.
Part of the reason why that early disclaimer is important is because the premise, as it stands, is somehow both not what the series is actually about and destructive when it comes to its internal storytelling. The show presents itself as a mystery box of sorts which completely undermines its genre, central performances and even general stakes, not even hiding its disguise well in the first place. It tries to be cutesy even though the source material and show's name are right there and Danny's point of view is noticeably warped, the ''secret'' being his multiple personalities (something that Apple requested not to discuss before airing).
This is why it's so painful to say that you have to endure four episodes of really bad TV before the show actually becomes what showrunner Akiva Goldsman and the rest of the writers' room (including Suzanne Heathcote and Gregory Lessons) wants it to be, eventually even being quite good TV. The Crowded Room is in fact not a mystery box and it's not about crazy twists; it's about understanding and examining fractures. It's perfectly okay to question supporting characters' validity or meaning—something that Apple requested not to discuss before airing—but you only get to that point in episode five when the writing starts to use emotion as a catalyst and many will have given up before that because of the ridiculous vagueness.
That episode five is also when your actors are released and are able to fly because they finally get to dig for the truth and emotion in their characters. Unsurprisingly that then becomes the show's strongest element, Seyfried and Holland leading with confidence. Former finds Rya's solace and chaos by listening and giving others room to breathe while latter is able to slickly move between moods and postures of Danny's personalities—something that Apple requested not to discuss before airing—though that is after we get past the ''high school phase'' that we can probably drop altogether now with Holland as he handles more nuance as an adult here.
There are plenty of good moments given to other actors as well, notably Abbott whose screen chemistry with Seyfried is excellent and his grubby lawyer is a nice change of pace later when the show has been swimming in darker waters for a few episodes.
The show's period details are perfectly adequate, from cinematography (by the likes of Ksenia Sereda and William Rexer) to Loren Weeks' production design, but there is a precise warmth in its direction (by directors like Kornél Mundruczó and Mona Fastvold) which again really gives enough space and time in the second half, less so in the first. It allows each character to have a distinct voice and moments that are only about them which really matters when the show becomes about futures and not pasts or traumatic events—something that Apple requested not to discuss before airing—that haunted those pasts. You have to go through a bunch of confusing storytelling structures (as well as some terribly unrealistic courtroom dialogue) in order to care about those futures but the actors do a hell of a job to make it worth your time and energy, even if just barely.
Smileys: Amanda Seyfried, Tom Holland, characterisation
Frowneys: Premise, structure
The Crowded Not-Exactly-A-Disaster Artist - coming soon.