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Them Struggles to Balance Real-Life Terror With the Supernatural

Amazon's new 50s-set series puts a horror spin on racism.
  • Them (Prime Video)
    Them (Prime Video)

    "This house is ours" is a refrain we've heard in countless horror stories, haunted house tales, and other supernatural narratives. But taken literally, in a real-world context, when a person or a family must assert the right to live in their own space, and to keep safe from malevolent — yet very much human — forces outside, that terror takes on a new meaning. Henry Emory (Ashley Thomas), the patriarch of the Black family at the center of Them, the new anthology series on Amazon that debuts this week, tells his wife, Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde) "this house is ours" in the first episode, and while he means it about the all-too-human threats to their home and family after they move to a seemingly idyllic neighborhood in sunny Compton, California in 1953, the sinister supernatural forces we the viewer have already seen at the edges of the show make it clear that the other interpretation will also apply.

    Them is the first in a proposed multi-season anthology horror series from creator Little Marvin and executive producer Lena Waithe. This ten-episode first season, called Them: Covenant, centers on the Emory family, who leave traumatic circumstances in North Carolina to move to California during the Great Migration of the 1950s. Henry chooses the picturesque (and almost exclusively white) community of Compton over an area like Watts because of the upward mobility it promises. He's gotten a job as an engineer at the local aerospace plant, another situation where he'll be the only Black employee in his field. As he, Lucky, and their two daughters Ruby (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Gracie (Melody Hurd) are moving in, the dirty looks they receive from the neighbors are an early indication of the hell that's in store for the Emorys, but it's by no means the first one. Pilot director Nelson Cragg layers on the horror trappings from the very beginning, including a cold open set in North Carolina featuring the character actress Dale Dickey as a menacing figure that sets the dread to high, and a series of title cards straight out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre promising that the ten days the Emorys spend at their new house on Palmer Drive will be a harrowing experience indeed.

    We're in the middle of a thriving moment for social issues being presented through the lens of horror and genre fiction — specifically issues of racism and America's racist past (as they relate to its racist present). Jordan Peele's spectacular films Get Out and Us and the HBO series Watchmen and Lovecraft Country have all found success in setting the insidiousness of real-life racism against terrifying and often supernatural terrors more often found in the unnatural realms of horror. Them certainly feels like it's trying to take its own place in this genre, and some of the comparisons seem pretty overt (the fact that the show cast Joseph, the daughter from Us, in a show called Them, and then in the third episode borrows the same Minnie Riperton song that plays over the Us final reveal feels … intentional, to say the least). But Them ultimately stumbles in its attempts to balance the racist horrors of its real-life story with the supernatural terrors that make themselves known to the Emorys in a way that ultimately makes its end result feel pretty generic.

    The problems begin when the Emorys arrive on Palmer Drive to an immediate reaction from the neighborhood busybodies, led by Betty (a purposefully loathsome Allison Pill) that one would best describe as … overt. This isn't iciness; it's not passive-aggression; it's not tacit othering. Pill's character has described as a proto-Karen, but that's definitely not it. Betty is a Grand Wizard in a housedress, and she immediately begins mobilizing the residents of Palmer Drive to explicitly make it clear to the Emorys that they're not wanted. This isn't anachronistic, of course, and the real-life racism directed at Black people who moved into so-called "white neighborhoods" during this period was as vile as anything. The problem for Them, though, is that cranking the overtness of the community's racism to eleven and then adding the metaphorical icing — where there appears to be a malevolent presence in the Emorys' home that Grace calls Miss Vera — handicaps both approaches. The supernatural horror seems superfluous and unnecessary when Betty and the other neighbors are blasting racist music in the Emorys' front yard and Ruby's classmates surround her in class making monkey noises. Meanwhile, the human-level racism from Betty, as well as the show's forays into things like the history of redlining and predatory real estate sales to Black people in the '50s, feel like they're being chalked up to some kind of metaphysical boogeymen instead of shown for the very human acts of evil they were.

    This isn't to say that the show's horror is always ineffective. The ways in which the Emory family experience the evil presence surrounding them varies by character. Grace glimpses Miss Vera (the schoolmarm from the books she reads); Lucky seeks out the few other black families who moved to Compton before them and finds herself stalked by The Man in the Black Hat; Ruby is befriended by a white girl at school who is not what she seems to be; Henry appears to be haunted by visions of a terrifying minstrel character. Them keeps trying to outdo itself in terms of the trauma on screen, which sometimes feels punishing in a way I don't think it intends. That cold open at the season's beginning features a member of the Emory family who isn't present during the move to California, which plants the seeds of a reveal of further trauma yet to come. That reveal comes in episode 5, and just a warning: it's maybe the most upsetting thing I've ever seen on television, and I don't mean that as a compliment. Lucky's grasp on her own sanity gets more and more tenuous as the season goes on, and that old haunted house trope of whether the ghosts will make a good person do something terrible begins to linger over the story as well.

    Ultimately, Them works against itself too much to be truly effective horror. The show's best elements (Ayorinde delivers a fantastic performance as Lucky; guest turns by Brooke Smith, Anika Noni Rose, and Paula Jai Parker are incredibly welcome) and creepiest scenes don't amplify the racist horrors around the Emorys, they only dampen them. The real world was terrifying enough without the monsters lurking in the basement.

    Them's entire ten-episode first season drops on Amazon Prime Video April 9th.

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    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.

    TOPICS: Them, Prime Video, Lena Waithe, Little Marvin