The racism horror anthology series is pure degradation porn, says Angelica Jade Bastién. "Them — showrun and created by Little Marvin and executive produced by Lena Waithe — isn’t just rote, flagrantly biting the aesthetics of other filmmakers. It isn’t just morally bankrupt. It isn’t just grating in its empty platitudes and kiddie-pool-deep proclamations," says Bastién. "I am comfortable calling it one of the most anti-Black pieces of pop culture I’ve seen in the last few years, one that left me spent after the grueling process of watching its virulent imagery. It is a stunning refutation to Hollywood’s belief that representation behind and in front of the camera will fix its inherent racism. (I’m not sure Hollywood can be saved, no matter how many people of color it ropes into its machinations.) Perhaps I should have known when, early in its first episode, it explains the Great Migration in text overlaying the screen, tipping its hand that it is not for Black audiences at all, but everyone else." Bastién points out that Them features white people using racial epithets like the N-word, "coon," "Ape" and "Sow" without wholly considering "just how damaging such language and imagery is not only for the psyche of the characters involved, but for the Black people in the audience who understand it on a visceral, intimate level. At the same time, it has nothing new to say about whiteness — how it works, how it perpetuates itself, how ingrained it is in our culture. Yes, sometimes racists are venomous, other times they’re passive. Sometimes they burn the words 'n - - - - - heaven' in your yard, other times they wear a smile as they rope you into a real-estate deal you’ll never escape from." Bastién adds: "I couldn’t help but think about the material effect on Black folks of watching such violence in life and on screen. When we’re being confronted by news stories like that of the killing by police of 20-year-old father Daunte Wright in Minnesota, watching Them feels like compounded trauma. It doesn’t induce empathy or the desire for abolition in white folks. It doesn’t force others to consider the anti-Blackness they perpetuate. If anything, it lets modern white people off the hook, providing extremes with which they can distance themselves from their own racism. Little Marvin and Lena Waithe, like far too many Black creators in the industry, are not interested in challenging the status quo; they’re now a part of it. In doing so, they are cravenly using Black pain to line their pockets."
The Black horror in Them can never divest itself from real Black Horror: "A show like Them, rooted in real historical violence toward black people, is not ironic and is not aesthetic," says Brandon. "It is a realist project. And yet, it is ironic. It is not a realist project. And there is located my uneasiness when it comes to Black Horror, because Black Horror, I feel, can never, except at its most ironic and campiest, divest itself from real black horror. Within the genre, how many degrees of freedom do black artists get in terms of deviating from the real-world violence we face. But then, I think, well, those aren’t things white artists have to contend with, and so I don’t think we should either. And yet, there is so much black art that feels as though it were created from a defensive crouch. It is very much invested in what white people see when they look at us. And, no judgement, it’s just a thing that is true of some black art. And very present in Black Horror of the moment."
Them controversy underscores the trouble with realistic violence in genre TV: "It’s no coincidence that The Handmaid’s Tale is a work of speculative fiction," says Judy Berman. "The past decade has seen simultaneous spikes in genre entertainment—sci-fi, fantasy, superheroes, horror—and in entertainment with an overt political or social message. So, inevitably, the two trends now converge more frequently than they once did. Sometimes that convergence is breathtaking. Only horror could provide indelible metaphors for oppression like Get Out’s 'sunken place' or, two generations earlier, the premise of The Stepford Wives. While it faltered in some of its allegories, Lovecraft Country used body horror to profound effect in a story line that had a Black woman literally shedding her skin to inhabit the body of a petite white woman, in a striking encapsulation of the harm caused by white-supremacist beauty standards. In many other cases, the result of using the tropes of so-called low culture as a vehicle for high-minded commentary has been a misguided, potentially offensive muddle. The defining series of the 2010s, Game of Thrones, faced multiple fan-driven reckonings over its stereotypical depictions of nonwhite characters, as well as how and why it incorporated sexual violence. But the Covenant controversy reminds me more of the response to last year’s irredeemable Hunters (another release from Amazon, whose frequent investment in senseless carnage—see also: Utopia—suggests the blame isn’t limited to Waithe and Little Marvin). Another politically minded show in a genre that thrives on violence as entertainment—action comedy—it follows the adventures of Nazi hunters, in episodes that include both pulpy, Tarantino-esque revenge fantasies and somber scenes of Jews suffering and dying in the Holocaust. There is room for the representation of both things in art, but they simply don’t mix."
Them's substance is severely lacking, especially in the show’s most violent or disturbing moments: "So often, trailers are worse than the movie or TV series themselves; in this case, I thought the trailer was actually more interesting," says Cassie da Costa. "I agree that Them is pretty, but not in the way I believe the producers or filmmakers intended. There’s a sheen of off-putting perfection to every image here, which has inspired comparisons to Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us. But in Peele’s work, the beauty is plastic and creepy. In Them, it’s stylish and technical. It has a way of painting over some of the show’s most egregious efforts at social commentary, keeping viewers engaged in how things look rather than in what the images themselves are doing. This is a typical prestige television strategy. But by the time you reach your emotional breaking point with Them—whether while watching episode 5 or episode 1—the paint has cracked. And what’s beneath it, a blunt depiction of racial violence in 1950s Los Angeles, isn’t profound."
Them hits a rich thematic vein, one that proves the horror of racism is too broad and deep to be monopolized by a single creator: Despite biting Jordan Peele's style, Them is still pretty good, says Alison Herman. "Them mines a fantastic amount of unease from the Stepford Wives staples: too-bright colors, unnaturally neat lawns, the menace of conformity," says Herman. "Typically in these stories, the whiteness of single-family subdivisions is left implicit, with classics like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet digging beneath the surface of the American Dream without putting all its innards on display. Them dispenses with this pretense until images of everyday abuse are indistinguishable from whatever else is after the Emorys. Dozens of neighbors gather outside the Emory home to stare and blast music, eerily standing in a crowd. Maybe they’re possessed by some Invasion of the Body Snatchers–esque entity. Maybe they’re just bigots."
Them ends up falling flat because agony is its only motivator: "We don't really know anything about the Emorys besides the fact that they are being abused simply because of their race," says Ineye Komonibo. "Some might argue that stories like this have a place in the zeitgeist because they remind us of the horrors of racism, but I don't know that Black people could ever forget how cruel society has been over time. How could we? It follows us everywhere we go. Someone needs to know just how dangerous it was and still is to be Black in this world by way of projects like this — but I don't think that it's us."