Tropes are transplanted as frequently as cardiac organs in this slick, but derivative, supernatural drama.
Spectral visions in the mirror. Photographs that catch fire of their own accord. Hidden cameras and bloody animals. Dangerous showers, storms, and identity transference.
Welcome to the world of Chambers, Netflix’s new supernatural drama (the ten episode first season premieres April 26; I’ve seen five). The series hails from creator Leah Rachel and concerns poor Indigenous high school student Sasha Yazzie (Sivan Alyra Rose) who, in the midst of losing her virginity, suffers a heart attack and requires an emergency heart transplant. The donor? Affluent white girl Becky Lefevre (Lilliya Reid, glimpsed regularly in flashbacks and hallucinations). Several months after her operation, Sasha meets with the remaining members of the Lefevre family: Nancy (Uma Thurman), Ben (Tony Goldwyn) and Becky’s twin brother, Eliott (Nicholas Galitzine).
Chambers subtly traffics in the same examination of grief and trauma as former AMC/Netflix transplant The Killing, albeit in a less oppressive and rainy fashion. The series is partially interested in how the Lefevre family, with their wealth and their ties to New Age practices, process the loss of Becky. Thurman’s Nancy, in particular, spends the majority of her screen time in the early episodes grieving, barely able to change out of her pajamas or leave the house, her closest companion the glass of white wine permanently clasped in her hands.
Goldwyn’s Ben is more proactive… and nefarious, which ties in with Chambers’ dominant preoccupation: the supernatural connection that exists between Sasha and Becky. The central logline of the series is that Becky’s heart physically affects Sasha, offering her flashes of insight into the girl’s life and the suspicious circumstances surrounding her death. The series takes its time revealing the details of Becky’s death, using Sasha as a kind of paranormal investigator who uncovers clues, follows up leads and interrogates suspects. Over the first half of the season, nearly everyone is a suspect, including Becky’s friends at school, as well as her brother and father.
The first episode is exceptionally well-directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, an Emmy nominee for his work on American Horror Story: Coven. Visually constructed around three separate desert storms, “Into The Void” is a lengthy introduction to the Arizona-set series – a world populated by families of wildly disparate incomes and racial backgrounds. Gomez-Rejon favors close-ups, especially of his actors’ faces, as well as slow-motion shots, to create an otherworldly vibe and the episode is unafraid of integrating pointed commentary about the class disparity between Sasha’s community (populated by people of colour, bicycles and poverty) and the opulent wealth of the Lefevres, who have a meditation room in their home and the ability to gift Sasha both a car and an all-expenses-paid bursary to attend Becky’s private school.
Unfortunately these rare-for-populist-TV-series storylines are dropped almost immediately in favour of more traditionally trope-y supernatural elements. Each episode of Chambers features a variety of odd or unusual events designed to amplify the mystery of what Becky’s heart is doing to Sasha. For dedicated fans of horror and the supernatural, there’s very little in Chambers that will feel overly fresh or innovative. For those seeking some mild frights, however, the series has its share of creepy imagery.
Unfortunately, Leah Rachel and her writers have a tendency to overstuff the narrative with an overwhelming number of competing storylines. The first three episodes offer a mostly streamlined narrative dedicated to introducing Sasha, her uncle Big Frank (Marcus LaVoi), boyfriend TJ (Griffin Powell-Arcand) and best friend Yvonne (Kyanna Simone Simpson), as well as the Lefevres and Becky’s inner circle which consists of frenemy Marnie (Sarah Mezzanotte), secret boyfriend Ravi (Jonny Rios) and potential stalker Penelope (Lilli Kay). Each successive episode, however, tosses in additional complications and subplots, including a health condition for Nancy, a drug addiction for Elliot, Yvonne’s mother’s mental health issues and a nefarious loan shark to whom Big Frank becomes indebted to. These competing arcs will undoubtedly tie into the series’ central mystery, but Chambers undeniably suffers from a case of Netflix bloat, almost as though there wasn’t quite enough story to fill the ten episode order and the writers overcompensated with too much extra.
Sasha is a little-seen character on TV: a teenage girl who isn’t always pleasant or likable. When Chambers folds this perspective into the narrative…it – and by extension, Sasha – are doing something challenging, confrontational and quietly revolutionary.
Performances are solid across the board. As arguably the main draw, Thurman is fine, though she’s given a limited amount to do. Goldwyn excels at balancing Ben’s concerned/creepy impulses; his true motivations are a constant source of mystery. The teen actors are, for the most part, passable, though Powell-Arcand fares worst due to his underwritten role.
The success of the series falls squarely on the shoulders of newcomer Alyra Rose, who has by far the greatest amount of screen time. Reactions are apt to be divisive, if only because Sasha is a little-seen character on TV: a teenage girl who isn’t always pleasant or likable. Sasha can be rough, sexually forward, profane and off-putting. She’s also a POC, navigating an often ludicrous rich, white social system where her skin, her hair, her beliefs and her cultural background immediately mark her as an outsider.
When Chambers folds this perspective into the narrative, as it does in the first two episodes, it – and by extension, Sasha – are doing something challenging, confrontational and quietly revolutionary. Unfortunately the more obsessive Sasha becomes about unraveling the mysteries of Becky’s death, the more the narrative retreats from this intriguing class criticism in favour of a story that relies on familiar tropes and visual signifiers, as well as some shocking bad dialogue.
Chambers is frequently engaging and interesting, with a strong visual eye (particularly when Gomez-Rejon directs), but it is weighed down by its reliance on familiar conventions and an overabundance of plotlines. Overall the series is worth checking out for fans looking for a supernatural fix, but its binge-worthiness and long-term prospects are less certain.
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