Even if it seems like the easy way out, it’s hard not to compare the new Amazon Prime Video series “Them” to HBO’s buzzy “Lovecraft Country.” After all, you’ve got Black people navigating previously white spaces — in this case, a family moving from North Carolina to Los Angeles — a 1950s setting, supernatural elements, anachronistic music choices, war trauma, mysterious basements, leaps in chronology, large fonts announcing a change in location, a creepy kid dancing, etc.
But the goal for all involved with “Them,” including creator Little Marvin and executive producer Lena Waithe, should be to avoid the fate of “Lovecraft,” which drew initial critical acclaim thanks to a bravura pilot but then got lost in the morass of its own mythology. By the time that series wrapped up its first season, it was more of a slog than an event. “Them” is slated as an anthology series, meaning this season, unofficially known as “Covenant,” should offer more closure. And that throughline helps to create a more focused story, even with the disparate elements found within.
After an unnerving prologue, the main story begins in 1953 as we meet the Emory family — optimistic engineer Henry (Ashley Thomas), former teacher Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde), and their two children (Shahadi Wright Joseph, Melody Hurd) — on their way to a new home in Los Angeles. As the onscreen text informs us, this journey was one that many Black families made during The Great Migration, a more than 50-year period when 6 million Black people alighted from the South in search of a better life across the United States. It also ominously tells us that what we’re about to see takes place over just a 10-day period.
While many view the West with rose-tinted sunglasses, “Them” shows how the corrosive effects of racism were in full rot even in the City of Angels. As soon as the Emory family pulls into the driveway of its new home, their new white neighbors are out in full force to protest, led by a proto-Karen named Betty Wendell (Alison Pill), in all her mid-century modern brittleness.
While the family puts on a brave face, the terror lurking right outside their door is enough to unsettle even the stoutest of convictions. “They will never take from us again,” Henry says, a loaded statement made even more so as Lucky jabs bullets into a pistol at the kitchen table. If the neighbors weren’t enough, both Lucky and youngest daughter Gracie (Hurd) begin to experience strange visions and unexplained scares courtesy of Miss Vera, the schoolmarm of Gracie’s books.
The Emorys’ home is supposed to be its buttress from the racism they experience out in the world, but even inside their domicile, peace is hard to find. “There’s something bad in this house,” Gracie states solemnly. “I don’t like it.” Home ownership was supposed to be a way for Black people to make gains and achieve the so-called American Dream, but “Them” shows even that wasn’t enough for many during this period.
The first episode ends on an intense note, and the second maintains that momentum, diving more into the everyday racism that Henry faces at his job and eldest daughter Ruby (Wright Joseph) encounters at school. It also explores the fragile mental states of both husband and wife, concluding in the most fraught pie-eating scene in recent memory. Props to both Ayorinde and Thomas, who have mastered the big, single tear drop, which is used for maximum dramatic effect in both episodes so far.
The look of “Them” is appropriately lush, giving off that classic 1950s vibe of polished perfection on the surface and cracks just below the shine. Director Nelson Cragg, who helmed both available episodes, is a two-time Emmy nominee for cinematography, and he uses all the tricks in his arsenal here. Split screens, Dutch angles, and a POV from a car’s gas task all add to the sense of unease.
Marvin has said “Them” is more about terror than horror, a distinction that means you likely won’t be seeing any Lovecraftian creatures emerging to wreak havoc, but there are some jump scares for which the faint of heart will need to be aware. However, there is some dry humor to be found as well; P.J. Byrne (“Big Little Lies”) drops in with a scene-stealing performance as Henry’s boss, waxing poetic about the family dog.
The first two episodes of “Them” do a solid job of setting the stage and leaving enough questions unanswered to keep the viewer hooked. (Was that oil at the end of Episode 2? Or something more sinister?) But we’ve all seen shows start off like a rocket only to squander that goodwill with padded episodes, meandering asides and opaque resolutions. Can “Them” avoid the pitfalls of its predecessors? Or will this house crumble upon itself?
“THEM” debuts on Amazon Prime Video on April 9.