Apple TV+ originals have been on a positive streak as of late with a wide variety of favorites like Ted Lasso, Severance, and Shrinking. The streaming service’s next hopeful is a ten-episode limited psychological thriller series titled The Crowded Room created by Academy Award-winning writer-producer Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) and inspired by the events of the 1981 non-fiction novel The Minds of Billy Milligan from author Daniel Keyes. Set in the 1970s, we first meet a young man named Danny Sullivan (Tom Holland) just outside of Radio City Hall in Manhattan, accompanied by his housemate Ariana (Sasha Lane). The pair head further into Rockefeller Center, hunting down a specific man with the intention to kill. When it comes time to take the fatal shot, however, Danny freezes and whatever plan that may have been in place descends into pure chaos.
The Crowded Room operates in a cyclical non-linear structure that brings us back to the failed shooting in New York City on multiple occasions as it is the event that incites Danny’s arrest and subsequent interrogation. At the core of the narrative is a string of prolonged interviews between Danny and his curious interrogator Rya Goodwin (Amanda Seyfried) leading up to his impending trial. Together they slowly unravel the mystery of what led Danny to the scene of the shocking crime. We navigate through these fragmented snippets of his life primarily through flashbacks to both his childhood and high school years, meeting his hard-working mother Candy (Emmy Rossum), his cruel stepfather Marlin (Will Chase), former love interest Annabelle (Emma Laird), his two questionable young comrades Mike (Sam Vartholomeos) and Jonny (Levon Hawke), and more along the way.
In trying our best to avoid spoiling the show’s many twists and turns, it’s difficult to really explain what really goes wrong with The Crowded Room. Things start out quite slow and dull before hitting a point that generates intrigue as to the number of possibilities where the main mystery could be headed. However, The Crowded Room only teases at being something far more innovative and creative than it truly is. As its intended nail-biting conclusion draws closer and closer, it becomes clear that this psychological thriller is something we have seen many times before, just structured a bit differently.
Due to the nature of its cyclical structure, several events are rehashed repeatedly in sequences that are unnecessarily elongated and tedious. Returning to specific moments within the plot is often for the sake of revealing slightly more information that Danny had previously omitted, be it intentional or not. The Crowded Room loses any shock factor it may have been building up to with a final major twist that is painfully predictable and inevitable. Had this limited series been written with more precision and nuance, these gradual reveals would have kept the viewer hooked as intended. The narrative suits an episodic format but is too drawn out for its own good and lacks the snappy momentum needed to pack even the smallest of punches.
The choice to set The Crowded Room in the 1970s never feels fully committed to either. The show’s costumes, makeup, and hairstyling look way more modern and out of place. Not only is The Crowded Room unconvincing in these ways, but it’s also a visual bore. Series directors Kornél Mundruczó (who is also an executive producer), Alan Taylor, and Mona Fastvold are seemingly just going through the motions. In an episode that takes place partially in London, corners are cut by using archival footage – an outrageously out-of-place choice that comes as a consequence of nothing else within the show feeling authentic to the ’70s. It becomes evident that the only reason this story is set within this specific era is for the stigma around mental health, which should have been explored deeper by fleshing out Danny’s formative years rather than as a fleeting thought during preparation for his trial.
Despite a rocky start getting into character, Tom Holland is the best part of the series no question. And yet, The Crowded Room falls right into the chain of anti-climatic projects the Spider-Man actor has taken on following his work in the MCU. When he is finally able to display his skills roughly at the halfway point, Holland proves his abilities as a dramatic actor through stark shifts in physicality and heightened emotional scenes. Sadly, his co-star Amanda Seyfried is not given the same opportunities as the unlikely investigator Rya Goodwin.
For a mere episode, the show seems to want to flesh out Rya and give her a storyline of her own concerning her life outside of the prison interrogation room, before swiftly forgetting and not bothering to loop any of it into the bigger plot at hand. Rya is never allowed the space to be anything more than a narrative device to tediously pry information out of Danny’s life story over and over again. With no substance to work with, Seyfried churns out an entirely average performance as a result.
Impressively, The Crowded Room is both over-confident and diffident at the same time. The series believes it is far more nuanced than it actually is, over-explaining the obvious while simultaneously ignoring dialogue and actions that make no sense in light of the reveals. On the other hand, it dips into sub-themes regarding race and sexuality that are never given ample attention to be relevant or necessary to the plot and feels as though they were tagged on for the sake of it. The reality of The Crowded Room juggling more than it can handle is that it ignores its fundamental character. We never get to know the real Danny Sullivan on a deep enough level to be intimately invested, making the entire show practically futile.