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.
Created by Little Marvin, the first season (Them was given a two-season order by Amazon, and will presumably follow a different story in Season 2) follows the Emory family -- mom Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde), dad Henry (Ashley Thomas), elder daughter Ruby (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and her younger sister Gracie (Melody Hurd) -- as they struggle to simply exist in an all-white neighborhood in 1950s Compton. The premise alone stirs a level of anxiety for the protagonists in any viewer knowledgeable of the history of the California city, or any place in America at that time, when there were deeds that restricted Black and other non-white people from living on a property, as well as the harassment from their white neighbors that ensued when that was defied.
But Marvin, in collaboration with a team of directors including Janicza Bravo and Ti West as well as screenwriters Francine Volpe and Dominic Orlando and executive producer Lena Waithe, still decide to illustrate each instance of microaggressive to violent persecution of the Emorys in lieu of a nuanced narrative that also asks: Who are these characters when they are not actively battling or succumbing to the menace of whiteness?
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.
A band of racist white neighbors, led by housewife Betty Wendell (Allison Pill), taunt the Emorys on a daily basis, further unhinging Lucky. Meanwhile, Henry has to duck and weave around his boss' (P.J. Byrne) constant racist remarks in order to be perceived as, at most, a non-threatening Black. Ruby grapples with self-hatred and a desire to assimilate into her new white high school. And little Gracie, the only character who seems like she is inside an actual horror series, is being haunted by the mysterious, faceless voice of a woman singing a southern ditty.
But as if the racist reality of being Black in the 1950s isn't explicit enough, Marvin adds a standalone black-and-white episode that can only be described as Racism: The Origin Story to double down on the awfulness that long preceded the Emorys. Oh, and finally, amid all the other plots in this series, there is the white storyline that finds people like Betty and other neighbors being despicable toward each other, which is never resolved.
Them is a lot of things, and often all at once, but what it fails to offer is a refined supernatural lens that not only explores the terror that follows when Blackness exists in historically white spaces but is also scary. As it stands, despite having enough time to unnerve fans of horror in 10 episodes, Marvin's series is more an indictment of white racism against Black people -- underscored by Black Power tunes by Nina Simone, Amiri Baraka, and others -- than an eloquent contribution to the genre.
It comes on the heels of Lovecraft Country, a series that, like this one, might have been better as a horror anthology series that doesn't force its creator to commit to a single narrative piece, especially when it's clear in several areas that the ideas weren't always there or coherent. This is another rehashing of broad Black Lives Matter statements that are unsuccessfully contorted to try to fit into a genre piece. As a result, both the horror aspect and the sociopolitical commentary are shortchanged. There's no sense of mystery, no intrigue that keeps you guessing until the final credits. Because it gives you all the atrocities, mostly a barrage of well-worn racist stereotypes, immediately and consistently.
And on the racial commentary end, there is a persistent victimization of Blackness that comprises Them. Though, presumably after the writers remembered that this is supposed to be a horror series, by its contrived ending it reintroduces the Emorys as a sort of final family. It's an odd note to conclude on, even though the idea of Black heroism is somewhat satisfying, considering that Black leads in horror -- including ones as capable as we have here -- don't often get that label.
Still, understanding that there has been a rush for Black storytellers to respond to the current political landscape, as well as pressure for them to duplicate the achievement of offerings like Get Out, creators have to ask: Is this a three-dimensional human story or more of a lengthy tweet thread with the obligatory #BLM? The latter does not make a compelling series, of any genre. That includes Them.
TV Guide rating: 2/5
Them premieres Friday, April 9 on Amazon Prime Video.