Welcome to Up Next, a recurring column keeping an eye on what’s new in TV. This week, TV critic Valerie Ettenhofer checks in with a review of Apple TV+’s new limited series The Crowded Room, starring Tom Holland.
There’s a twist in the new Apple TV+ series The Crowded Room that we can’t talk about here. To do so would be to reveal a major spoiler, but then again, the show has a tendency to spoil itself early and often – giving away its big reveal in everything from its opening credits to the unbelievable yarn it starts spinning immediately. There’s no real need to talk about the nature of the muddled new drama’s central surprise because The Crowded Room is, unfortunately, a series that’s on the verge of narrative collapse at all times. Its story makes little sense during its first half, which aims for enigmatic but ends up convoluted. It starts to come together in its more forthright second half, which is nonetheless sluggish and strange.
All of this might make The Crowded Room sound like a series you could write off without another word, but the drama has several aces up its sleeve – in the form of a handful of talented A-list actors. Tom Holland stars as Danny Sullivan, a weird, antisocial young man whose life to date has been punctuated by abuse and rejection. When we meet Danny, he’s in the midst of a rash criminal action that will land him face-to-face with an intrigued psychologist, Rya (Amanda Seyfried). When Rya asks Danny to share his sad, sordid backstory, audiences are swiftly introduced to a host of new characters, including Danny’s put-upon mother (Emmy Rossum, only 10 years Holland’s elder in real life), his cool, damaged roommate (Sasha Lane), and a mysterious British mentor (Jason Isaacs).
Other great actors pop up here, too, including Christopher Abbott and Will Chase, and it’s the rotating door of talent that makes The Crowded Room marginally worth tuning into – at least for a while. As with the PTSD drama Cherry, Holland here seems to be trying to shake the “naive youth” box his time as Spider-Man put him in, and while the script and story never quite rise to meet him, he does well in this role. Holland spends much of the first few episodes giving off the vibe of a kicked puppy, his unkempt hair and sallow, anxious look unable to hide an endearing gleam in the actor’s eye. As Danny’s secrets come to light, though, the actor is given much more to do, and he approaches each new challenge with both subtlety and clear enthusiasm.
Still, a great cast list can’t fix a broken story, and The Crowded Room too often borders on incoherent. The series is set in the late 1970s and inspired by a non-fiction book written in the ‘80s, and the story includes all the moral panics to match. Danny’s complex tale seems suspect from the start, thanks in part to the inclusion of a whole host of elements that feel like they were ripped from a fearmongering chain letter. When Danny decides to buy some weed to impress a girl, his life falls almost comically off the rails. Suddenly, his days are populated by shadowy criminals (who are always people of color), violent strangers and classmates, and out-of-control situations. Underneath it all, there’s a potent whiff of undiscussed abuse, some formative trauma that turned Danny meek and malleable.
The Crowded Room digs into that trauma eventually but does so with the same hazy, somewhat pseudoscientific ‘80s logic as the rest of the story. If you’ve listened to even a small handful of episodes of You’re Wrong About, the super-popular podcast with episodes on such culturally exaggerated phenomena as the Satanic Panic and the myth of razor blades in candy, the first few episodes of this series will feel like a series of red flags waved furiously in front of your face. When the obvious tension between Danny’s story and reality comes to a head, and the red flags give way to exactly what you likely suspected hours ago, the show’s worst crime turns out to be that it’s kind of boring despite an exciting Trojan horse of a premise.
The Crowded Room isn’t awful, but with its head-scratching pace, it’s one of the first shows to truly strain the standard 10-episode Apple formula. Plus, something about the self-serious sincerity that takes over the back half of the show feels more cloying than effective. Seyfried gives an extremely straightforward (yet compelling, because she’s Amanda Seyfried) performance as a woman digging for answers, but the show only scratches the surface of the moral quandaries her character faces along the way. Instead, it presents its true premise – revealed more than midway through its ten hours – as at once technically complicated and morally obvious. The Crowded Room asks viewers to buy into a whole hell of a lot, but it doesn’t ground us with much of anything along the way.
The series includes several small bright spots, though they don’t cohere. Holland’s performance shows an enjoyable range, and the show takes a delicate, mostly effective approach to the abuse at its center. Its cinematography ranges from standard to striking, and its ‘70s soundtrack is eager to please. Plus, its supporting cast is mostly stellar, if underused. Overall, though, the show is poorly structured and tediously executed. At its worst moments, The Crowded Room feels as convoluted and confounding as one of Danny’s odd stories – and even less entertaining.
The Crowded Room debuts on Apple TV+ on June 9, 2023. Watch the series trailer here.