Tom Holland and Amanda Seyfried do the work but are hamstrung by cliché and overvaluing surprise over character development.
Danny Sullivan (Tom Holland) sits in interrogation. He’s been picked up for a seemingly random shooting on the busy streets of New York City. He insists that his friend Ariana (Sasha Lane) fired the gun, but the police can’t find her. Nor can they locate Danny’s Israeli landlord Yitzhak (Lior Raz). Worse, when they start digging, they find a pattern of people disappearing around the young man. NYPD Detective Matty Dunne (Thomas Sadoski) feels confident the department has accidentally brought in a serial killer. To prove his point—and find the victims—he brings in his ex, Professor and Psychologist Rya Goodwin (Amanda Seyfried), to conduct a series of interrogations.
If the above sounds even remotely interesting to you, don’t read anything more about The Crowded Room or the source material. I promise not to spoil anything further, so you’re safe staying here. Everywhere else, though? I can’t guarantee they’ll step as lightly.
Why does it matter what you know going in? Because The Crowded Room maintains an intense dedication to keeping its cards close to the vest for most of its episodes. Knowing what they’re hiding will leave viewers playing spot the plot development in a way that is distracting at best. At worst, as in my case, it proves more interesting a quest than simply watching the action on-screen.
The biggest problem is that the show so wants its prestige to knock your socks off. So, they spend episodes running in increasingly unsatisfying circles until series creators Akiva Goldsman and Todd Graff feel they’ve dragged things out long enough to deliver the maximum wow. Perhaps they’re right. However, I expect that most will be so disengaged that it will be less of a bang and more of a whimper.
The fault doesn’t lie with the actors who do their best with the increasingly repetitive material. Seyfried and Holland, in particular, put more life in their two-hander encounters than anyone has any right to expect of them. Supporting players like Raz and Lane prove the right mix of charismatic and untrustworthy to intrigue and repulse in equal measure. Will Chase’s Marlin Reid, a social worker and Danny’s stepdad, is similarly unnerving. Unfortunately–again because The Crowded Room drags things out–viewers will likely know exactly why he’s so disconcerting a few episodes before the series sees fit to confirm it.
The Crowded Room takes what could have been a humane and humanistic actors’ showcase and turned it into a party trick.
That last bit is another significant problem. Based on decades-old source material, the show too frequently seems unaware that audiences have seen all of its tricks several times before. By taking so long to “build suspense,” The Crowded Room gives its audience far too much time and hints to get ahead of it. If you’re someone who watches things hoping to outsmart the show or film, you might love this. For most, however, it will prove a mix of irritating and deflating.
In its commitment to plot machinations and trying for gasp moments, The Crowded Room takes what could have been a humane and humanistic actors’ showcase and turns it into a party trick. Despite stacking its cast with players more than equal to the material, it seemingly doesn’t trust them. Instead, it relies on a mystery that stretches past its breaking point. Then it tosses in a bag of old tricks anyone who lived through the 90s twist craze will recognize. And if you go in knowing about the source material? Prepare to spend the majority of the series waiting for a plot with any depth to arrive.
The Crowded Room is currently chasing its own tail on AppleTV+.