Season 1 of Them, the new Amazon Studio terror series, has a lot of stories to tell but may have told too many in one 10-episode series.
Exec-produced by Lena Waithe and co-created by writer/producer Little Marvin, Them follows the trendy historical/horror mashup genre recently made popular by Us, Get Out and Lovecraft Country. Like Lovecraft, it takes place in the 1950s, and like Lovecraft, it involves a bright Black family with the usual middle-class dreams of the post-WWII era. However, as most know, the racism of that time almost always made those dreams harder to achieve.
Henry (Ashley Thomas) and Lillie aka Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde) Emory are a married couple with two young daughters (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and (Melody Hurd). They have migrated from the South (North Carolina) to Southern California in 1950, having bought a house in the suburban comfort of affordable, quiet Compton, California. Little do they realize that parts of LA County during this time weren’t even desegregated.
Compton was indeed a primarily white suburb in the early 1950s, with the first Black families reportedly moving there in 1953. White flight began and continued through the 1970s, with the beginnings of gangs and gang warfare driving out many middle-class Black families in the 1980s and early 1990s. It became affectionately infamous during the notorious East Coast/West Coast gang conflict, spilling over into hip hop and rap music.
Still, for the Emorys, it’s better than the overt racism they just left. Or is it?
Shortly after arriving in their seemingly pristine neighborhood, they realize that it is all white and their neighbors want to keep it that way, openingly sneering and scowling at them, hoping their deadly stares will be enough to scare the couple away. Pretty soon they make their feelings known with racial slurs and a lot of stereotypical put-downs. The N-word is thrown around like a football.
Things aren’t much better for Henry, a war veteran and engineer, at his job. His new boss prides himself on hiring him but also wants to make sure Henry “knows his place” and doesn’t get too comfortable. At home, Lucky has to worry about getting their daughters safely to the local school. The modern 1950s house seemingly has everything they could want. Yet something there is bringing out the worst in the Emorys. No one can sleep. When they can, the dreams are terrifyingly real. What happens next and throughout 10 episodes is unsettling, somewhat humorous but mostly sad.
Aside from themselves, what the Emorys bring from the South is trauma. They do not want to face what or how they have suffered. The focus on not dealing with it interferes with driving the story forward, something done better in the well-paced Lovecraft Country. In Them, action scenes build slowly, and, when they occur, it’s like time standing still to watch the racial violence occur, then watch the trauma of racism, war, hurt, and frustration be pushed down, beaten down, and not examined by the characters while the horror/taboo aspect takes precedence, followed by the revelatory stories of neighbors and microaggressions of the era.
All these stories and more that are touched on in the series need to be told but may be deserving of more time, rather than throwing it all in for good measure. Yes, it was bad then and, in different ways, still is.
For example, during this time, women of all races were still fighting for their basic rights to be recognized, to have good careers, and to handle their own finances. Domestic violence wasn’t often considered a real offense. Many gay people were closeted because of legal and social consequences.
However, in choosing to display the long-term effects of trauma in Henry, Lucky, and their children as a result of racist acts, the writers deftly show that mistreatment stays in the consciousness for a long time.
The beautiful Deborah Ayorinde (Luke Cage) and Ashley Thomas (24: Legacy, Ice) are the leads in a cast that features well-known and familiar faces including Ryan Kwanten (True Blood, The Oath), Christopher Heyerdahl (Hell on Wheels), Anika Noni Rose (Power, The Quad), Alison Pill (Devs), Paula Jai Parker (Hustle and Flow) and Derick Phillips (Longmire, Friday Night Lights).
Them has a total of five different directors. Fans of Ryan Murphy shows, including American Horror Story, American Crime Story, Ratched, and Pose may see director Nelson Cragg’s signature style in the pilot, in which everyone is pleasant yet on edge, seemingly waiting for the terror to come.
The performances by the actors are stellar in every episode, especially Ayorinde, Thomas and Pill. Despite the interminable wait to exhale, you will love and hate on their characters long after it’s finally over.
On a scale of 1 to 5, this gets a 4.
Them debuts on Amazon Prime on April 9.
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Diedre Johnson is a Los Angeles-based former staff writer covering entertainment whose work has appeared in Variety, The New York Daily News, TV Guide.com, The Crisis, Vogue Japan and Italia, and Harper’s Bazaar China, among others