In the three episodes of The Crowded Room that Apple TV+ debuted on Friday, the audience is never told what the show is about. They're given the setup: Tom Holland plays Danny, a runaway kid in 1979 who's been shacking up in a flophouse in his neighborhood. One day, he and another resident of this house for wayward souls head into Manhattan and shoot at a man in Rockefeller Center. Soon after, Danny's been arrested, he's being interrogated by [profession redacted] Rya Goodwin (Amanda Seyfried), and she's probing him to tell his story.
Neither Episode 4 or Episode 5 will reveal what’s really going on, because series creator Akiva Goldsman is keeping the central premise a secret for as long as possible, and that includes asking critics not to share it in pre-release coverage. But it becomes blazingly obvious what The Crowded Room is about long before the moment Goldsman decides to make his big reveal. The audience will easily be able to unravel this not-so-knotty mystery, which amounts to a lot of wheel-spinning for what ought to be a tense psychological thriller starring two performers, Holland and Seyfried, who can really deliver when the material is there.
Barring critics from disclosing any of the details of The Crowded Room's plot is a particularly curious decision given that the show is based on a nonfiction book about a real person and a high-profile legal case. It's right there in the opening credits for everyone to see: "Based on the book The Minds of Billy Milligan by Daniel Keyes." That book was published in 1981, and Milligan's real-life criminal history is widely known. It ended in a landmark court case, though identifying the reason it was labeled one would require spoiling the plot of The Crowded Room. Milligan's story was the subject of a recent Netflix documentary and has been used as an inspiration for at least one feature film, though identifying the titles of those productions would require spoiling that which we mustn't spoil.
People have been trying to make a proper movie out of The Minds of Billy Milligan for a very long time. In fact, the story of how The Crowded Room came to be a 10-part limited series on Apple TV+ in 2023 rather than a feature film directed by James Cameron in the 1990s would probably make for a more interesting TV series than The Crowded Room turns out to be. Cameron was sued by Milligan himself before all was said and done. And still, attempts were made to adapt the book for film, with David Fincher and Joel Schumacher attached to direct at various points, and Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, and Matthew McConaughey all at one point or another in line to play the role that would eventually go to Holland.
Instead of a TV show about James Cameron getting hauled into court by the violent criminal whose story he was trying to direct, The Crowded Room delivers Holland and Seyfried in an endless jailhouse interview, as she tries to gingerly lead him — and, by extension, the audience — to revelations that grow increasingly, thuddingly obvious. Watch enough psychological thrillers and twisty crime series and you pick up a sense for when a narrative is tiptoeing around something major.
The first five or so episodes of The Crowded Room are all tiptoeing, as Danny tells his story in flashback while Goldsman and director Kornél Mundruczó take pregnant pauses to make sure the audience doesn't miss a clue. And if that's not enough, there's Rya, who spends the first half of the season pointing out inconsistencies in Danny's story and practically turning to face the camera to make sure we all get what's really going on.
Again, Billy Milligan's real-life story is but a Wikipedia link away, a quick perusal of which will let you know how much The Crowded Room has sanded down the heinousness of his crimes for the Danny character. Without spoiling anything (since this stuff isn't in the TV show), the real-life Milligan was a serial rapist, imprisoned for one such offense and tried for several others. You can see why Goldsman, in adapting the series for TV, might not want angel-faced spider-boy Tom Holland playing a serial rapist. But regardless, changing that aspect of the story shifts the narrative balance to engender sympathy for Danny— or it will if the audience makes it far enough into the series to find out what exactly happens.
So much of what makes The Crowded Room a frustrating TV show is endemic to the current age of streaming TV bloat. Goldsman and his team take too many episodes to tell a story that would work better as a movie. It wouldn't be a very good show even if we could discuss what it's actually about, but it would at least be one that respects the audience's ability to read the opening credits and click on a Wikipedia link.
New episodes of The Crowded Room drop Fridays on Apple TV+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.