3 out of 5 stars

This psychological thriller series starts with a baby-faced Danny (Tom Holland) and Ariana (Sasha Lane) shooting up the Rockefeller Center, but only the former is linked to the crime and arrested. The cop in charge of the investigation, Matty Dunn (Thomas Sadoski), thinks Danny might be a serial killer, but interrogator Rya Goodwin (Amanda Seyfried) has her doubts…

Much of The Crowded Room is presented in an interrogation format after Rya’s called onto the case, but neither Holland nor Seyfried gets the material they need until the second half of the show’s 10 episodes, making it a rather lifeless watch.

We disappointingly leave the crime behind and venture back through the personal history of Danny. It’s the 1970s in upstate New York and he’s living with his timid mother Candy (Emmy Rossum) and abusive stepfather Marlin (Will Chase). Danny’s a talented artist but unpopular in school, cutting a solitary figure due to the loss of his twin brother Adam. However, despite being a loner, he does have two close friends to get in trouble with called Johnny (Levon Hawke) and Mike (Sam Vartholomeos).

Danny’s life of petty crime and supplying drugs to his friends leads him to meet his intimidating neighbour Yitzak Safdie (Lior Raz). Soon, he moves into Yitzak’s home for wayward kids, which happens to be just across the street from his own unhappy home. Living with him is the aforementioned Ariana, whom he becomes a little too attached to. A selection of heavy-hitting actors appears in minor flashback roles, including Jason Isaacs, though they feel underused. Indeed, many characters come and go throughout Danny’s life without much backstory, plot relevance, or interest to the audience.

The story muddles through various incidents in Danny’s life, ranging from mundane house parties and minor incidents with local dealers to horrific abuse at the hands of his stepfather. For the first five episodes, there appears to be a lack of direction in The Crowded Room. Although a tragically misunderstood and abused character, Danny’s life story isn’t written with enough depth to justify hours of television.

This Apple TV+ drama is loosely based on Daniel Keyes’ acclaimed 1981 non-fiction novel The Minds of Billy Milligan. If anyone knows the case, they’ll know something is up with Danny, but The Crowded Room tries to keep this reveal too close to its chest… to its detriment. Once the plot is allowed to unravel in episode 7, “The Crowded Room”, the show finally feels like it can breathe. This turning point will, unfortunately, have come too late for most viewers.

The Crowded Room wants to be a thrilling mystery in the earlier episodes, but it feels more like a generic drama that circles the same plots waiting for its big reveal to drop. Instead of offering the audience fun misdirection, it can only offer poor performances, contradicting characters, and plot holes. It feels like the series opts for red herrings over good writing.

Instead of letting audiences slowly piece all the clues together about who committed the opening crime and what their motivations are, it’s all revealed in one clumsy interrogation scene. Creator-writer Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) is clearly not a fan of the ‘show don’t tell’ method of presenting narratives.

The last four episodes thankfully let Holland and Seyfried showcase their skills. Holland’s rather meek and charmless performance makes more sense towards the end once Danny’s issues are fully uncovered. Emmy Rossum, who’s only nine years older than Holland and looks far too young to play his mother, is sadly wasted until the final two hours. Only in the penultimate episode, “Family”, do Seyfried’s doctor and Rossum’s mother finally meet for a powerful conversation about Danny.

The courtroom drama aspect isn’t as captivating as other shows in the genre but after the middling earlier episodes, it feels like a breath of fresh air. Christopher Abbott (Possessor) and Carmen Ejogo’s lawyers are criminally underused but manage to stand out considering the minimal screen time both are given.

Somewhere, deep down in The Crowded Room, is an important story about America’s failure to safeguard teens with mental health issues. Later moments where Danny’s health issues are addressed paint a horrific view of the US criminal justice system and its lack of caring for those who sit outside of it.

The Crowded Room could have been more sensitive about certain subjects, doing more than just raise awareness. It also feels tacky to use such a sensitive topic as a ‘gotcha’ plot twist, especially when the accounts of abuse are handled delicately (and mostly off-screen).

This shows delivers hints of brilliance once it finds focus, but it’s clearly unsure if it wants to be a psychological thriller or a character study, and it does neither particularly well. Shaving off some episodes and focusing on the characterisations instead of setting up a big twist would have benefited The Crowded Room. It’s frustrating the potential of this show doesn’t appear until halfway through.

USA | 2023 | 10 EPISODES | 16:9 HD | COLOUR | ENGLISH

Cast & Crew

writers: Akiva Goldsman, Henrietta Ashworth, Jessica Ashworth, Suzanne Heathcote, Cortney Norris & Gregory Lessans.
directors: Kornél Mundruczó, Brady Corbet, Mona Fastvold & Alan Taylor.
starring: Tom Holland, Amanda Seyfried, Sasha Lane, Will Chase, Lior Raz & Emmy Rossum.