A promised land of dreams across the rainbow, the Emory family travel from North Carolina to the eternal sunshine of California, father Henry, ready to take up an engineering position at Tanner Aerospace, mother Livia, known as Lucky, a teacher looking for a new position, and their two daughters Ruby and Gracie, coming home to Palmer Drive in Compton.
A quiet suburb of Los Angeles of pastel shaded walls, white fences, neat lawns and perfect petticoats basking in the late summer sun of September 1953, opposite the Emory’s house at 3011 is the Wendell household of 3012, Clarke and Betty, her buttermilk smile curdling as the new neighbours roll up and wave a greeting; the only black family in the area, Betty vows to be rid of them.
A new ten-part anthology series created by Little Marvin, Them is structured in the same manner as American Horror Story and The Haunting of…, each season presenting a self-contained story with a rotating ensemble cast playing different roles in different settings, linked thematically rather than an ongoing storyline, the television equivalent of a repertory theatre company.
Subtitled Covenant, that refers to a clause within the contract presented to the Emory family by real estate agent Helen Koistra which states that “no person of negro blood” may occupy a home in the estate, a historic relic which she informs them will remain unenforced but which opens the door to the ugliest truths hidden behind closed doors which march boldly onto the streets as night falls.
Led by Betty (Picard’s Alison Pill), the neighbourhood women are rallied to treat the Emory house as a spectacle, as though the family were animals within a zoo, triggering memories of what they hoped to have left behind, for Lucky the tragedy of her infant son, for Henry his experiences in the war, while Ruby is systematically bullied at school and Gracie has nightmares of a woman in the basement.
A distillation of cruelty, concentrated and purified, irrational and unjustified, Betty may be the instigator but at the least the others are guilty of silent complicity, but stretched to ten episodes over ten days, including two episodes which fill in recent events in California and North Carolina and the history of the settlement of Eidolon which once occupied the land, the pace is uneven and too often the story and characters find themselves lost in cul-de-sacs.
Led by Kill Ben Lyk‘s Ashley Thomas and Luke Cage‘s Deborah Ayorinde as Henry and Lucky, they are brave and defiant in the face of relentless torture within and without, every moment of grief, doubt and resolve expressed without holding back, but it is Us‘ Shahadi Wright Joseph and Trick‘s Melody Hurd as Ruby and Gracie who are the stand out stars of the series, vulnerable and utterly believable in every tragic moment.
The ten episodes split amongst five directors and their running time varying from over an hour to just over half that, Nelson Cragg’s opener Day I is undoubtedly the strongest which the remainder of the season struggles to match, Janicza Bravo’s fifth episode an interlude to fill in substantial but inconsequential backstory, much of which is never raised again, less a pause for breath before plunging into the back half than the point from which Them never regains focus.
Despite being the principal corporeal protagonist, Betty’s plotline is frustratingly inconsistent, the potential repercussions of her spiteful treatment towards her best friend following a perceived slight never referred to after the fact, forgotten as swiftly as any fallout from the visit to her estranged parents, and her role in the final episodes indicate the writers had little idea how to resolve her storyline along with the main narrative despite her precipitating it, literally putting her out to pasture with friendly milkman George Bell, True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten in a recurring role as superfluous as Spartacus‘ Liam McIntyre as largely absent husband Clarke whose character is explored only through others gossiping about what company he might be keeping.
These failings are all the more frustrating given the inherent potential of Them, the strength of the premise and performances and the production values evident in the flawless recreation of a very specific time and place of great possibility for change confounded by the resistance of the established order, the struggle for control and power the Emorys are caught in not only the overt threat of the present but the accumulated history of their people, embodiments of prejudice and judgement disturbing, intractable, endemic and persistent, the early episodes imbued with a palpable sense of menace which too swiftly is normalised so every mundane household task becomes an opportunity for cheap scares which only detract from the sadly still relevant message.
Them will be available on Prime Video from Friday 9th April