TV TATTLE

Amazon's Them goes overboard with its grueling racial torture

  • "As the rising protests against police brutality have made America’s anti-Black racism difficult to ignore, Hollywood has responded by greenlighting more racial horror projects," says Quinci LeGardye. "Films and TV shows including Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us, Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country, and Oz Rodriguez’s Vampires vs. the Bronx have addressed anti-Black racism and systemic oppression through the lens of horror, to varying effect. In 'Covenant,' the first season of Amazon’s new horror anthology Them, first-time showrunner Little Marvin explores anti-Black racism and redlining through a Black family moving to an all-white California suburb in the 1950s. As the neighborhood responds to the family’s presence, Them throws every imaginable racist act and insult at its leads, to the point where the show feels like torture for its Black characters — and also its Black viewers. Like so many attempts to explore Black trauma onscreen, it winds up as another relentless, pointless depiction of that trauma." LeGardye adds: "To Little Marvin’s credit, the show is stunning to watch. The 1950s art design is gorgeous; the neighborhood is painted with pastel colors that amplify the dissonance when Wendell and her neighbors loudly play 'Civilization (Bongo Bongo Bongo)' in front of the Emorys’ house. Mari-An Ceo’s costume design is incredibly stylish, staying true to the period while also differentiating between the white and Black characters’ styles, pastel twinsets vs. bright dresses. Little Marvin takes his influences from classic Hollywood films and psychological thrillers, with off-center close-ups reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick. The soundtrack is cool and anachronistic, filled with classic R&B and soul songs now recognizable as samples from well-known rap songs. The setting of 1950s white Compton is also interesting, though the gravitas used when characters say the city’s name gets old. By the end of the show, it becomes obvious that the intended audience is viewers who find it stunning every time Betty Wendell riles up her neighbors to preserve the pureness of their community by saying, 'This is Compton!'"

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    • Them struggles to say something new about racial terror against Black Americans: "Them joins a recent slate of films and series that employ horror as a lens for examining the Black American experience.," says Lovia Gyarkye. "Unfortunately, unlike Jordan Peele’s Get Out or Us (to which the show has drawn comparisons because of the title and the presence of the gifted Joseph), Them neither taps fully into the shivery potential of traditional horror nor adds much to what many viewers already know about racial terror in the United States. During a time when violence against Black people can so easily be witnessed through screens and social feeds, peddling Black terror without a fresh exploration of its roots or its future is at best a bit boring — and at worst, gratuitous. If this kind of art doesn’t say anything new or different about the relationship between Black people and America, then it risks becoming little more than trauma porn. After all, do we really need more images of Black people dying?"
    • Baked into Them is the pesky, exhausting problem of "doing too much": "This is evident in the glut of needle-drops, many of them anachronistic, which clutter the storytelling and club the viewer over the head with their obviousness," says Aisha Harris. "When Lucky responds to one of Betty's racist tirades by smacking her clear across the face (right after she politely asks little Gracie to hold her purse), James Brown's electrifying 'The Payback' kicks in for a hot second; yet the punctuation feels less like a triumphant nod to Foxy Brown than it does a crass, intentional play for Black Twitter meme status. There are so many stylish music cues like this that early on it begins to seem as if the writers have relied on the likes of Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, and Isaac Hayes to do all of the heavy lifting to cover up the thin story. Them is also drowning in terror and trauma, and little else. And that trauma and terror are so horrific, several episodes begin with content warnings of graphic violence. I'm not one who believes every piece of art depicting awful events needs such disclosure, but in this case, the producers made the correct choice; there are scenes involving Black pain and suffering so mortifying, I can imagine many viewers not being able to finish watching it."
    • Them centers on racism in a manner whose reliance on overstatement winds up feeling surprisingly unimaginative: "If we are to have a story about hatred in 1950s America, horror elements might be potent instruments in rendering the seeming powerlessness and frightening isolation of Black characters," says Daniel D'Addario. "(Indeed, the fact of Compton’s restrictiveness about allowing in Black families in the immediate postwar era is depicted, through scenes spent with a dissembling real estate agent, with a creepy tension that suits the material.) To use the supernatural as an explanation for the hate said characters face, though, lets the show’s more realistic malign elements off the hook a bit. Treating Betty as a monster means not having to investigate the idea that prejudices like hers exist within humans too."
    • Them inadvertently serves as a reminder of how deftly Jordan Peele threaded the needle of social commentary and horror with Get Out, and how elusive that target can be: "Comparisons are inevitable to Peele's films and HBO's Lovecraft Country, but this 10-part Amazon anthology series proves provocative and bingeable while taking some questionable detours en route to its ultimate destination," says Brian Lowry, adding: "Created by Little Marvin with a team that includes The Chi's Lena Waithe, Them attempts a similar feat, conjuring a series that's undeniably creepy and horrifically violent, but oddly disjointed. Designed as a stand-alone season a la FX's American Horror Story, the ambitious narrative also leaves behind a few conspicuous loose ends."
    • Them is as subtle as a sledgehammer: "One of the things that truly makes a horror piece so enthralling is the increasing sense of dread a viewer can often sense but cannot see, a spine-tingling score that guides you through an unnerving narrative, and just the right amount of delicacy that keeps the audience on pins and needles until the terror finally materializes. But Them, the new horror anthology series now out on Amazon Prime Video, is about as subtle as a 10-car pileup on I-95," says Candice Frederick, adding: "The series doesn't even seem to have enough curiosity about their humanity to examine that answer. Lucky wrestles with an unfathomable grief and racial trauma that began even before the Emorys relocated to Compton when her and Henry's baby son died. The heinous events that prompted the family's move are painstakingly revealed in the series. While we see glimpses of the smiling child in flashbacks, it is Lucky's quiet agony that anchors much of the story and motivates how she navigates her new place -- in utter fear of what could and does come next."
    • If you watch all 10 episodes, you'll be glad when Them is over: "It shouldn't shock or spoil you to know that Them doesn't end cleanly for anybody – not for the family, not for the neighborhood and not for the viewer," says Melanie McFarland. "I appreciated the crisp visuals and the stylistic homage to the midcentury thriller; at one point I mused that this is what Saw would look like with Stanley Kubrick or Robert Aldrich directing it. Thomas, Hurd, Joseph and Ayorinde – especially Ayorinde, who morphs into a desperately haunted woman before our eyes – are excellent performers who tap deeply in the viewer's well of empathy. For all of these reasons, by the time Them was over, the 10-episode series had wrung me dry of any notion beyond simply wanting to be done with it, which is an odd place for a technically solid, artistically bold, and believably acted show to leave a viewer. Whether you feel that way depends on how many kernels of truth and reality you recognize or acknowledge beneath the tale's gory, hideous surface, and more explicitly, how many of them you have witnessed or experienced."
    • Them and a Lovecraft Country episode tell the same haunted house story, but Them goes all in: "That self-contained episode, 'Holy Ghost,' shares a lot of DNA with Them," says Joe Berkowitz of the Lovecraft Country episode. "However, while Lovecraft Country cleverly illuminates some struggles of desegregating the suburbs, Them goes all in. The series zooms out far beyond neighborly antagonists, ghostly and otherwise, to examine how real estate developers and banks are all in on the conspiracy as well. It’s unfortunate that both series take a horror tack on this chapter of American history, since repetition dulls the impact somewhat. But this same story could be told in 10 different ways and still produce new wrinkles. (Lord knows, plenty of paler moments in American history have been told far too many times.)"
    • Them starts off strongly, but begins to drag through its 10 episodes: "The first few episodes of Them are the strongest and sharpest, diving headlong into the fragile mental states of both Henry and Lucky, while also dealing with the issues their children face," says Elliott Smith. "However, over the course of the show’s 10 episodes, the proceedings begin to drag. Lovecraft Country told its haunted house story in one episode. Here, the elements are piled on top of each other, including an entire episode devoted to a frontier backstory that slows everything down. The best aspects of the show take part in the real world: Henry’s frustrations about being demeaned in his job; Lucky’s palpable relief at being able to spend precious time with other Black people; Betty’s icy machinations, hidden behind a smile as flimsy as a Formica table. We also know, despite the neighborhood’s increasingly desperate attempts at rattling the Emory family, how things turn out down the road in Compton. The ghosts and visions, on the other hand, are of the standard jump-scare, now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t and Are-they-crazy? variety. The fact that the show is weighted more heavily to the supernatural side is a detriment."
    • Them is tense, unrelenting psychological horror: "While Lovecraft Country leaned hard into magic and metaphor, Them emphasizes the deep psychological horror of Black trauma, creating a story in which the actions of real people are ultimately more harrowing than those of any paranormal entity," says Cynthia Vinney. "With some exceptions, Them focuses on the points of view of the four members of the Emory family: mother Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde), father Henry (Ashley Thomas), teenage daughter Ruby (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and youngest daughter Grace (Melody Hurd). After the family relocates from North Carolina to California, the series wastes no time in establishing the malicious forces both inside and outside their new home. Initially, it's the spirits within that appear to represent the most immediate danger; the supernatural is a constant presence throughout the 10 episodes. Yet, as the story unfolds, the jump scares give way to unrelenting dread as the white neighbors escalate their efforts to drive the Emorys from their neighborhood, ultimately reaching shocking levels of violence."
    • Them creator Little Marvin says the nightmare on the show came from his real life: “I dream it and I did what I typically do (which is) write it down really quickly so I don’t forget it," he says. "But with this I had a real, visceral reaction that I’d never felt with anything I set out to write. I threw the phone and I said, ‘You will not,’ and I went back to bed. And then the scene haunted me for a few more days, and I realized there was something in it that was so raw and perhaps got to the deeper and darker and subterranean level of the history of violence against Black folks in this country that definitely unmoored me, and I felt I had to interrogate it... I had to explore, ‘Why does this exist and what it is doing for the story?’ For me, it was meant to reach through the screen and force a viewer to contend with this history of violence.”
    • Lena Waithe was won over by Little Marvin's script before she met him: Waithe specifically liked the specific, passionate perspective he brought to a story with universal relevance. “His voice is so directly connected to who he is as a person — bold, honest and a dark humor that sneaks up on you,” she says. “He forces the audience to confront our past because we’ve yet to escape it.”

    TOPICS: Them, Amazon, Lena Waithe, Little Marvin




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