New Apple TV+ thriller The Crowded Room delves into a crime committed in New York at the end of the 1970s. Spider-Man star Tom Holland plays a troubled teen whose life in a halfway house leads to murder.
The miniseries stumbles a fair bit, but when it gets the steps right it proves quite compelling. Its depiction of lowlife decadence and debauchery almost hits the mark, but Holland can’t quite live up to the task of carrying all 10 episodes.
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The Crowded Room recap: First 3 episodes
Episodes, 1, 2 and 3: It’s 1979, and 20-something Danny Sullivan (played by Holland) tried to kill someone in midtown Manhattan in broad daylight. He did so at the apparent urging of Ariana (Sasha Lane), a girl his age, and his landlord, Yitzak (Lior Raz). Or anyway, the police suspect a connection, because witnesses saw Ariana take the gun out of Danny’s hand when he wouldn’t shoot the guy they were after. And then Ariana and Yitzak both disappeared after the crime.
The police have Danny in custody, but he won’t tell anyone anything. Enter police psychologist Rya (Amanda Seyfried), who wants to know who he is and what makes him tick.
His story is a familiar one. Socially awkward, with an abusive stepdad (Will Chase), a terrified mom (Emmy Rossum), a crush on a girl (Emma Laird), and just a couple of friends, Jonny (Levon Hawke) and Mike (Sam Vartholomeos). To impress Annabelle, the girl in question, Jonny and Mike come up with an idea. Why don’t they steal Danny’s dad’s ATM card, get a bunch of money, buy a bunch of drugs, and invite pretty girls over to use them?
When a bad plan goes really bad
It works at first. Danny scores a date with Annabelle, but she breaks it off with the next day. Then he gets caught with the drugs at school, and gets knocked around by Annabelle’s boyfriend (Henry Eikenberry). Only a last-minute intervention by Yitzak saves Danny from further injury. Yitzak had just moved into the neighborhood and already had one tenant: Ariana.
Yitzak kept Danny safe from everyone, including his stepdad, and told Danny he could stay in his house with Ariana if he paid rent and followed his rules. Danny’s mom didn’t like it, but she’d long ago lost the courage of her convictions, so couldn’t do anything about it. Within a few days of being there, Danny realized Ariana was unstable.
Sure she’s crazy, but …
As is the way of men, this did not deter him from following her around and trying to be her best friend and confidant. He heard from her (in between her carousing and sleeping with Annabelle right in front of him at a house party, neither of which gives him the confidence to tell her she’s maybe moving a little fast for him) that she was still scared of an abusive presence in her life.
Danny decides to buy a gun so Ariana will feel safe. She says she doesn’t want it, but the pair wound up shooting at someone in Times Square anyway. So, what happened? And what about all the other bodies we keep seeing? The ones that Rya seems to have knowledge of, but Danny does not?
Tom Holland doesn’t seem up to the task
First off, the miniseries is inspired by the true-crime book The Minds of Billy Milligan by Daniel Keyes, which constitutes something of a spoiler if you’ve read it. If you don’t want to know how the show ends, don’t read or google the book.
The creative team behind The Crowded Room took steps to keep the real plot from the audience, I suppose, but definitely needed a more compelling actor than Tom Holland to make the show work as well as it should. (He didn’t exactly blow me away in Apple TV+ dud Cherry, either.)
Holland’s face can’t keep secrets, and he can’t project much beyond a sort of mild perturbation at any given time. It’s more like he’s being sent to detention and less like he’s a convicted killer in the ’70s.
… and that’s just the start of the problems
In fact, almost no one on the show acts like they’re where they ought to be. It’s really dispiriting to watch Holland and Sasha Lane walk down a dirty, production-designed street sounding like a pair of 23-year-olds in 2023, and then have Sterling Jonatán Williams enter the scene for a minute and blow them away by actually committing to a character from the show’s time period.
Also, it’s a little thing, but in one scene they go to see Rocky II. And then the next night, Ariana goes to a club where she hears Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, which was released the exact same day as the movie. I don’t buy that a DJ would be spinning that in New York at a drug-fueled dance club so soon after its release. Hard post-punk wasn’t considered dance music then.
Oh, and there’s a pretty miserably homophobic sequence where a black drug dealer (Stephen Barrington) tries to rape Holland’s character, and gets beaten half to death and shot at in retaliation. Just be prepared for that.
Despite its flaws, The Crowded Room proves strangely compelling
If you can get past little Spider-Man, there’s some good stuff in The Crowded Room. Kornél Mundruczó, who directs the first two episodes, used to be something of an up-and-comer in European cinema before losing his ambition after his 2010 Cannes runt Tender Son: The Frankenstein Project opened to boos and hisses.
The director’s form is best utilized in scenes like Annabelle and Danny playing on a rope swing together as the sun goes down (the sun is always going down on this show). It’s a breath of fresh air from the jittery steadicam usually utilized in The Crowded Room’s dialogue scenes. It’s just people living. TV needs more of that. I won’t lie and say I’m not curious how this show ends, or that I haven’t liked a good deal of the first three episodes. However, The Crowded Room feels like a missed opportunity in a lot of ways.
Watch The Crowded Room on Apple TV+
New episodes of The Crowded Room arrive Fridays on Apple TV+.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper and But God Made Him A Poet: Watching John Ford in the 21st Century, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.