Amazon released its latest genre show on April 9. In the fashion of American Horror Story, each season will tell a different horror tale. Viewers will likely be reminded of other series as well, and not always to the show’s benefit. We’re reviewing the first two episodes and seeing if there’s interest in future reviews.
Despite the title, don’t expect giant ants (or the camp villains from Wonder Woman’s past). In the postwar era, an African-American veteran, his traumatized wife, and their children1 flee horrific racism in the south and settle in Los Angeles, where they discover horrific racism. You can move into a new suburban house, but old ghosts may still haunt it.
Title: Them: Covenant, “Day 1” (aka “Welcome to Compton”) and “Day 3.”
Cast and Crew
Directors: Nelson Cragg,
Writer: Little Marvin, David Matthews
Deborah Ayorinde as Lucky Emory
Ashley Thomas as Henry Emory
Alison Pill as Betty “Bets” Wendell
Liam McIntyre as Clarke Wendell
Lindsey Kraft as Midge
Brooke Smith as Helen Koistra
Shahadi Wright as Ruby Emory
Ryan Kwanten as George Bell
Tim Russ as the custodian
PJ Byrne as Stu Birks
Abbie Cobb as Nat Dixon
Javier Botet as Javier Botet
Kim Shaw as Carol Lynn Denton
Derek Phillips as Sgt. Bull Wheatley
Bailey Noble as Marlene
Percy Hynes White as Davis Selby
Pat Healy as Marty
Malcolm M. Mays as Calvin
Melody Hurd as Gracie Emory
Ilana Becker as Greta
John Patrick Jordan as Earl Denton
Natalie Britton as Dottie
Sophie Guest as Doris
Ryan Kennedy as Gary
John West Jr. as Grady
Dale Dickey as Extremely Creepy Old Woman
An African-American family flees oppressive racism in the south and moves to the burgeoning suburb or Compton, LA, then a white enclave whose residents have signed a legally-dubious “covenant” never to sell real estate to anyone “of Negro blood.”
Things don’t improve for our protagonists, and society’s evils appear to have taken on a supernatural form.
See my comments under “Acting.’ This show would crumble without this cast.
The script’s best moments are memorable, and direction remains strong throughout, especially in the stylish handling of horror. Whether this season pays off or not, the show has been renewed for another, which will tell an entirely different story. And unlike American Horror Story, which lost me, if not its legion of fans, for its oh-so-ironic piling on of every horror trope and exploitative angle the writers could think of, Them, despite certain other excesses I will address below, tries to deliver a solid horror story that is about something. If The Loop was The Twilight Zone where all the tales take place in one town, Them intends to be a horrific anthology series where each story lasts a season.
The unrelenting oppressive tone and viciousness tends to undercut the intended effect. You start to wonder why this show needs a supernatural element as a villain, even one that intends to be metaphoric. Yes, over-the-top racism existed and exists. Watchmen began with as hyperbolic an example of twentieth-century as can be imagined– only they didn’t have to imagine it, because the Tulsa Race Massacre happened. However, the constant exposure to worst-case racism and supernatural doings, intended (in part, at least) to show the pervasiveness of racism for those on its receiving end, gives us too little opportunity to understand the characters in their quieter moments and their response to their situation. The effect feel unbalanced, even for the depiction of a virulently racist culture. The white neighbours, meanwhile– Betty, in particular– would be far more convincing and disturbing if we had more opportunity to relate to them as human beings who hold unpalatable views, instead of stand-ins for the historical effects of those views.
Originality: 1/6 We’ve already had Get Out and Us, acclaimed horror films that examine racism through the lens of the horror genre.2 Although Them has been in preproduction and production for a few years, it has had the disadvantage of turning up right after the acclaimed and conceptually similar Lovecraft Country. They were developed at the same time, though one took its inspiration from the novel of that title, of which Them‘s makers had to be aware. It also follows the brilliant Watchmen series/sequel, which also addresses (among other topics) racism in America through genre.
It’s not just the surfeit of such shows that give this one its low rating in originality. They haven’t done much original with it.
Acting: 6/6 The movie features strong leads. The excellent Deborah Ayorinde makes an overwrought script work, while the talented Alison Pill negotiates a character written almost entirely as a suburban monster. Ashley Thomas carries much of the human story wonderfully, the main child actors are outstanding, and Dale Dickey’s brief role (she is slated to reappear) leaves no doubt as to what genre we’re watching.
Production: 6/6 The show benefits from strong production values, and the visual style delivers a slightly off-kilter early 1950s, credible but uncomfortably off.
Effects: 6/6 While I had some questions about Dale Dickey’s make-up in the opening, I can ignore that in light of the brilliant and often subtle effects, in a show that often lacks subtlety in other areas.
Emotional Response: 4/6 See “High” and “Low” Points.
Overall: 4/6 The show does a number of things right, and I want to give it the benefit of the doubt. Yet I do not know if I will stay with this one to the end. I’ve been told it might be better to look up Lovecraft Country. I’ve read the novel, but not seen the series yet.
In short, they’re doing enough right that I hope the show lasts, even if I may hold out for Season Two.
Damn, though, but I am curious to see how this one will resolve.
In total, Them: Covenant,”Day One” and “Day Three,” receive 31/42
1. My very traditional description of the family is deliberate. If you watch the show, you will understand why.
2. Although these films share a writer/director, they do not address racism in quite the same way. I would and have argued that Us functions separate of its racial elements, important though they are. I can easily imagine its story being transplanted to any number of cultural contexts. Get Out cannot be separated from those elements. They’re what the story is about.
Likewise, Them: Covenant cannot be discussed separate of race.