Review: ‘The Crowded Room’ is a crime thriller starring Tom Holland (no spoilers)

Tribune Content Agency

Let’s talk about spoilers. Apart from the occasional plea to an audience, “Please do not reveal the shocking conclusion,” as in punchline movies like “Sleuth” or “The Sixth Sense,” spoilers were until relatively recently not a thing. These days, some viewers think nothing should ever be revealed about a show or film they haven’t gotten around to watching yet — which is to say, ever — though it is easy enough not to read reviews. (Harder to avoid is social media, where viewers spoil more plot points than any professional critic has the time to.)

Networks and streamers and their marketing departments have now come preemptively to ask critics not to reveal certain details of a series in order to “preserve the audience viewing experience,” though just which details are usually left to the writer’s discretion. Most reviewers, who are also viewers, understand and are happy to oblige. Specific requests are by and large easy to accommodate — sometimes they are so minor, you wonder what the fuss is.

Which brings us to “The Crowded Room,” which premiered Friday on Apple TV+. The official requests, though few, are so broadly stated and so central to the series as to make any meaningful review of the program impossible — indeed, one requested Thing to Avoid is common to nearly every mystery or thriller, if not, indeed, their very definition. Apart from commenting on the production values, performances, pacing, general quality of dialogue and describing the action in the early episodes, there will not be much to say — certainly nothing about the actual subject of the series, how it’s treated, and whether “The Crowded Room” succeeds in its aims, except in the vaguest terms, and even some vague terms qualify as forbidden.

(Of course, there is no law saying that a writer can’t refuse to honor these requests, but for the most part, we go along to get along.)

Here is the official description of the series.

Starring and executive produced by Tom Holland, “The Crowded Room” is a gripping, 10-episode limited series that stars Holland as Danny Sullivan, a man who is arrested following his involvement in a shooting in New York City in 1979. A captivating thriller told through a series of interviews with curious interrogator Rya Goodwin (Amanda Seyfried), Danny’s life story unfolds, revealing elements of the mysterious past that shaped him, and the twists and turns that will lead him to a life-altering revelation.

It’s probably safe to mention that the series was created by Akiva Goldsman, and inspired by a “non-fiction novel,” with which it has little in common past its greater subject, which I am not supposed to tell you. (That each episode ends with a title card reading “If you or someone you know, needs support, go to” might say something, if nothing in particular.) As is often the case, the property has been bouncing around Hollywood for a while, changing its shape and name until finding its current form. That Goldsman, who wrote the screenplay for “A Beautiful Mind,” is best known for his work in sci-fi, horror and genre pictures is not irrelevant to the way he has externalized certain psychological elements. (I was also reminded in this respect of the Disney-Pixar film “Inside Out.”) I wouldn’t call it technically, or medically, accurate, but it does make a kind of pictorial sense.

Anyway, as our story opens, we see Danny, a nervous, bedraggled young man, clutching a paper bag, riding a subway in the company of a woman we will come to know as Ariana (Sasha Lane). Up from the underground, he passes by Radio City Music Hall, with Frank Sinatra advertised on the marquee — the period work makes an immediate impression, all those extras in vintage clothing, all the old cars on the street — and proceeds to Rockefeller Center, where a gun comes out and goes off multiple times.

In the very next scene, police arrest Danny at his home (Ariana has “disappeared”), and then we are at the station house, one cop noting that Danny was “just a little good luck shy of a murder charge.” (No one was killed.) Det. Matty Dunne (Thomas Sadoski) wonders whether Danny might be a serial killer, and subsequent flashbacks seem to indicate we’ll be witnessing TV’s nth-hundred “making of a psycho” story. The series quickly brings in Seyfried’s character, Rya, whom Dunne addresses as “professor” and who is invited to ask Danny questions. Their scenes together are quietly compelling; indeed, this story could be told effectively as a duologue — though not over 10 hours, a length that seems arbitrary as regards the drama, but that must have been deemed economically advantageous.

“I wasn’t a very popular kid at school,” Danny tells Rya; and Holland, though 27 and British, does impressively inhabit a luckless American high school student. (He’ll age a few years over the course of the show.) Saddled with an immediately unlikable stepfather (Will Chase) and an intimidated mother (Emmy Rossum), Danny relies for support first on two goofball friends, Mike (Sam Vartholomeos), who is sporty, and Jonny (Levon Hawke), who does card tricks and knows where to buy pot. Later, moving into what he calls “the ghost house,” he will come under the protective wing of bullish landlord Yitzhak (Lior Raz) and wild child Ariana. (That the police can locate neither after the Rockefeller Center incident is what prompts Det. Dunne to imagine a serial killer.) Even later, in London, of all unlikely places, we’ll meet another sort of guardian, Jack (Jason Isaacs), who has something to do with Danny’s biological father.

Filling out the opening episodes are a girl Danny likes, Annabelle (Emma Laird), a bully who doesn’t like him and some frightening local drug dealers with whom the kids get mixed up. Things turn a little violent sometimes. There’s also talk of Danny’s absent twin, Adam, whose fate remains mysterious up until the moment the series declares something you have already guessed.

There are time jumps in these early scenes, some obvious, some not, and gaps you will not notice until they are filled in later on, as early scenes are revisited. This is cleverly done, though you would have to watch the series twice to get a full sense of it, because “The Crowded Room” is very long, and you may have forgotten much by the time you reach the end.

Things have been arranged to keep Danny sympathetic throughout, if a little confounding at times, more victim than victimizer, and the series advances toward a conclusion that will allow Rya to muse lengthily upon overcoming hurt. (“If a relationship can break you, then sometimes a relationship can also heal you,” she begins.) The story is sad, but ultimately not a tragedy, which would have felt very much like a waste of time.

The performances are good; the production values are high; the dialogue is well-written. The soundtrack is filled with great songs from the period — the late ’70s produced a lot of fantastic music. Some things make enough sense for one of Goldsman’s Dan Brown adaptations, but not really enough for a series that wants to engage in real-world problems and pathologies. The length of the series, which is padded with extraneous material — including a home life for Rya and a backstory for Danny’s mother and stepfather — and scenes that run longer than necessary, dilutes its effects, saps the drama of energy. (“The Sixth Sense” took only 108 minutes to get to its big reveal.)

In the end, the filmmakers — or the promotional team at Apple — may be overly concerned about maintaining the element of surprise. The series’ actual subject matter becomes obvious relatively early anyway, and, really, one could know it from the start without the viewing experience being significantly harmed. There are levels in the misdirection, and not all its secrets are given up at once.



Rating: TV-MA

How to watch: Apple TV+