In watching “THEM: Covenant,” the new anthology series from Amazon Prime Video, I couldn’t help but be reminded of what the gifted young actress Marsai Martin recently said during an interview about her goals as a producer.
“I don’t do no Black pain,” the “Black-ish” actress said. “If it’s Black pain I don’t go for it because there’s so many films and projects about that.”
While pain and trauma are assuredly part of the Black experience, there’s only so much a viewer can take of “THEM” before it becomes numbing — and despite the noble intentions of the creators, sensationalistic. Episode after episode of this unfortunate Black family suffering terrors both real and supernatural began to wear the viewer down, especially when the white aggressors receive little comeuppance for their deeds from those being oppressed.
As mentioned in our review of the first two episodes that premiered at SXSW, “THEM,” shepherded to the screen over an extensive period by creator Little Marvin and executive producer Lena Waithe, bears more than a passing resemblance in style and subject matter to HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” which also explored the fraught racial dynamics of the 1950s combined with otherworldly elements. For those who have seen “Lovecraft,” this series may tread too familiar ground for another 10-hour investment.
“THEM” tells the story of the Emory family, who, after a disturbing prologue, join The Great Migration many Black families made from the South to avoid explicit Jim Crow racism. In this case, the Emorys are moving from North Carolina to Los Angeles for what they imagine to be a better life in sunny Southern California after a tragic event that will continue to hang over them. War veteran Henry (Ashley Thomas) has landed a nice job at an engineering firm, while former teacher Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde) will assist their two children (Shahadi Wright Joseph, Melody Hurd) with the transition to the West.
Of course, any hopes that the move will be smooth are quickly erased as soon as the family pulls into the driveway of their East Compton home and are met by a phalanx of angry neighbors, including the particularly aggrieved Betty Wendell (Alison Pill). The threat outside the Emory home is real and terrifying, but so is the one inside what is supposed to be their safe place. Each member of the family deals finds itself dealing with their own specter, leading to terror pretty much everywhere they turn.
The first few episodes of “THEM” are the strongest and sharpest, diving headlong into the fragile mental states of both Henry and Lucky, while also dealing with the issues their children face. However, over the course of the show’s 10 episodes, the proceedings begin to drag. “Lovecraft Country” told its haunted house story in one episode. Here, the elements are piled on top of each other, including an entire episode devoted to a frontier backstory that slows everything down.
The best aspects of the show take part in the real world: Henry’s frustrations about being demeaned in his job; Lucky’s palpable relief at being able to spend precious time with other Black people; Betty’s icy machinations, hidden behind a smile as flimsy as a Formica table. We also know, despite the neighborhood’s increasingly desperate attempts at rattling the Emory family, how things turn out down the road in Compton. The ghosts and visions, on the other hand, are of the standard jump-scare, now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t and Are-they-crazy? variety. The fact that the show is weighted more heavily to the supernatural side is a detriment.
Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video
Take, for example, Betty’s ultimate fate. We’d love nothing more than to see Betty get her just desserts, and in Episode 6, Lucky delivers a most satisfying action that will bring a full-throated cheer from most viewers. But then Betty is pulled away from the main story in a bizarre sidebar, leading to an unsatisfying ending.
It’s too bad, because Pill is one part of an outstanding acting ensemble. Thomas and Ayorinde do a lot of the heavy lifting, and their characters, at times both tragic and terrifying, are brought to vivid life. Another strong suit of the series is the cinematography and direction. Primarily helmed by Nelson Cragg, with assists from horror vet Ti West and rising talent Janicza Bravo, “THEM” looks marvelous, capturing the mid-century modern vibe while accentuating the terrors the Emorys face through an arsenal of camera tricks.
It may not be fair to continually compare this season of “THEM” to “Lovecraft Country,” but it’s hard to avoid. One strength of “Lovecraft” was that its characters retained a sense of agency. Yes, they suffered, but in many cases, they brought the fight or avenged their injustices.
In “THEM,” we see the Emory family and other Black people beaten, shot, maimed and hanged. Aside from one shocking incident, most of the white people get away with it. Yeah, that’s how it went back then (and now), but it’d be nice to have the tables turned in televised escapism. You don’t walk away from this feeling particularly good, and that’s perhaps what Little Marvin intended, but many people don’t want to watch suffering for the sake of suffering.
“THEM” will return for a second season with a new cast and a new story, and it will be interesting to see where they go from here. Hopefully, they will be able to tell a story that stands on its own.
All 10 episodes of “THEM” are now available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.