‘Them’ Is Amazon’s Messy Stab at ‘Get Out’
The 10-part horror series from executive producer Lena Waithe explores the racist nightmare Black people face in America—with very mixed results.
You know a director’s work has been culturally influential when, in its wake, a crop of second-rate rehashes that simplify its ideas and formulas begins materializing.
Such is the case with Them, a 10-part Amazon series (out April 9) that recycles and amalgamates many of the elements and themes of Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us, the latter of which is even evoked by this endeavor’s similar title. More deflating still, though, is that creator Little Marvin and executive producer Lena Waithe’s horror effort (intended to be an American Horror Story-ish anthology, with each season boasting a new narrative) also traces the same lines already recently drawn by HBO’s Lovecraft Country, to underwhelming ends. Lovecraft Country may have been a mess, but at least it was daring and unpredictable—something that can’t be said of this period-piece tale of monstrous racism.
Early intertitles set the scene: Between 1916 and 1970, approximately 6 million Black Americans relocated from the rural Jim Crow South to other parts of the United States, where they hoped to find greater tolerance and opportunity. In 1953, Henry (Ashley Thomas) and Livia “Lucky” Emory (Deborah Ayorinde), along with their two daughters Ruby (Us star Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Gracie (Melody Hurd), become part of that great migration, moving from Chatham County, North Carolina, to Compton, California. The Emorys are attempting to start fresh after a terrible tragedy that, we glean from an oblique prologue, involved a menacing white woman (Dale Dickey) and her cohorts snatching their infant son Chester in broad daylight. Considering that the ensuing tale will focus on the clan’s 10-day ordeal in their new West Coast environs, it’s clear from the outset that this change of scenery will do them no good.
Them’s introductory on-screen exposition and ’70s-style credits recall The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and to be sure, a nightmare is in the cards. Their abode at 3011 Palmer Drive sits in a row of picture-perfect suburban tract homes straight out of Edward Scissorhands, and their neighbors are all clean-cut white men and eerie Stepford Wives-esque homemakers. At the top of that domestic food chain is Betty Wendell (Alison Pill), a bigot who resides with her husband Clark (Liam McIntyre) directly across the street from Henry and Lucky, and whose response to the area’s latest members is to shoot them malevolently disapproving looks from her front steps, and to then organize the rest of the street’s women to sit on lawn chairs and stare at the Emory house while blaring music. They’re racists with a capital R-A-C-I-S-T-S.
From the outset, there’s no subtext to Them, only text, and that doesn’t change as further details emerge. Henry is a WWII veteran who, in 1946, was a PTSD-wracked mess only saved from lunacy by Lucky. Following Chester’s abduction, however, the shoe is now on the other foot, with Henry trying to prevent unstable Lucky from snapping while simultaneously getting them all settled in their new digs and dealing with co-workers and bosses at his aerospace engineering job whose prejudice lurks behind thinly veiled small talk and laughter. Alas, keeping Lucky in check is hard work, since Betty and company are blatantly abusive and threatening, and because unnerving things keep happing in their home—such as their dog turning up dead, and Gracie boasting strangulation marks on her neck after the little girl’s nocturnal run-in with a specter that, she claims, is her children’s book protagonist Miss Vera.
Evil supernatural forces are almost as plentiful in this enclave as are real-world villains, and Them’s guiding idea is that racism is a corrupting plague that drives Black people literally insane—in part because they are repeatedly informed by their tormentors that their persecution is their own fault for not being nice or accommodating or reasonable enough. There’s mileage to be elicited from that idea, but over the course of its first four installments (which were all that was provided to press), the material is content to stay on the surface, alternating between scenes in which Betty fumes about the Emorys and organizes the town’s men to do something horrible about it, and Henry and Lucky have strange hallucinations (or are they?) involving blackface performers and housewives driven mad by incessant discrimination.
Them’s directors stage their requisite jump scares with aplomb, and both Ayorinde and Thomas deliver engaging harried-to-their-breaking-point lead performances. Yet there’s no nuance to the proceedings’ dramatic dynamics—a situation not rectified by a revelation about Betty’s own family, which only underlines the twisted rancidness of virtually every Caucasian character. Marvin eschews the complexity of Peele’s socially-minded horror films for a much more straightforward approach, all while appropriating various facets of those predecessors, be it chipper ’50s pop tunes, creepy kids, or—most glaringly—the lingering image of a Black woman’s face whose big smile masks barely-suppressed trauma and psychosis. That doesn’t stop the series from conjuring up a few memorable sights of its own, such as a top-hatted fiend who accosts Lucky on an empty bus. But it does neuter the majority of the action’s suspense, since we always know exactly how we’re supposed to feel about everyone involved.
Much of the blame for that shortcoming, ultimately, falls on Them’s writing, which amidst endless ugly epithets spewed by its light-skinned cretins, has one character tell Henry, “I heard them white folks in Compton are straight-up evil, man,” forcing Lucky to opine, “There is something wrong with this place, Henry. I can feel it. Something rotten,” and features Gracie remarking, “There’s something bad in this house. I don’t like it.” Clues about the nature of this otherworldly threat aren’t hard to spy (the Emorys purchased their home from the hellish-sounding Southland Trust Reality). Then again, there’s little sleuthing required, given that it’s not long before folks begin informing the family that their dwelling’s prior Black owners met a grisly fate.
If nothing else, the series has a controlled aesthetic polish that keeps the mood sinister during both the sunshiny day and shadowy night. And perhaps there are greater mysteries lurking around Them’s second-half corner; vague intimations of a grander conspiracy do suggest that there could be more up the show’s sleeve than is initially apparent. Nevertheless, there’s so little novelty or intricacy to this saga’s early going that, in the end, it’s difficult to give it the benefit of the doubt.