It’s fitting that Tom Holland—Marvel’s notorious leaker-in-chief—is the face of Apple TV+’s The Crowded Room: The series is so enamored with its central twist that the streaming service has barred reviewers from discussing the vast majority of its content—yet the show still manages to reveal almost its entire hand in big bold letters in the opening credits. When The Crowded Room premieres June 9, not-so-eagle-eyed viewers will be sure to spot that the Akiva Goldsman-penned thriller was inspired by Daniel Keyes’ 1981 non-fiction novel The Minds Of Billy Milligan, a book about “the first person in U.S. history acquitted of a major crime by pleading dissociative identity disorder.” That is, according to a 10-second Google search that will probably be plastered all over Twitter before the thing even airs.
But here’s what we are allowed to tell you: The 10-part series, set believably in the mid-to-late ’70s, swirls around the life of Danny Sullivan (Holland, who also executive produced), a sullen and shifty but ultimately sympathetic young adult who has been arrested in connection with a Midtown NYC shooting. Over the course of several in-prison interviews with an interrogator named Rya (Amanda Seyfried), whose real and very obvious raison d’être is, yes, included in Apple TV+’s list of no-go spoilers, Danny slowly starts to unravel the facts of his own personal history—as well as a revolving door of enigmatic sidekicks—that led him to the scene of the crime.
If that summary has you hoping for a nuanced character study disguised as a gripping crime thriller, which is how the show clearly wishes to be perceived, you should probably just rewatch Mare Of Easttown and call it a day. We’re not just harping on the whole spoiler thing because it’s trendy discourse right now. The Crowded Room’s central issue is that it continually suffers from, ahem, a bit of an identity crisis. (Don’t come for us, Apple TV+. See the 10-second Google search above.) The show can’t seem to figure out if it wants to be a shocking crime drama or an earnest treatise on the stigmas surrounding mental illness, and as a result, it ends up as neither.
The mysteries presented at the story’s outset are so immediately evident and written in such a heavy-handed, winky manner that one will likely forget any of this is supposed to be a mystery at all. (The early installments’ reliance on visual tropes established by better films is also lazy at best and distracting at worst. Pay attention to the use of mirrors, for example.) The twist, then, comes about two (or maybe even three) episodes too late. What follows is at times genuinely moving but largely reads like a series of quotes cribbed from pastel-toned Insta-graphics and mushed together into a schmaltzy plea to take mental illness seriously. It’s not that these topics aren’t handled with the care and sensitivity they deserve. They are. It’s just that they aren’t written particularly well, nor does the show really have anything new or interesting to say about them.
It isn’t all bad news. Relative newcomers Sasha Lane (How To Blow Up A Pipeline) and Emma Laird (Mayor Of Kingstown) shine as Danny’s magnetic best friend-turned-accomplice and enigmatic love interest, respectively. Shameless’ Emmy Rossum also delivers a challenging and believable performance as Danny’s guilt-stricken mother, Candy (despite the sketchy age gap between the two actors; Rossum is only nine years older than Holland), in one of the series’ most meaty arcs. Seyfried, despite having a whole episode dedicated to her character’s backstory, is not given much to work with here and largely exists to sit opposite Holland and explain things to other characters and the audience in turn. Still, it’s a treat to watch her work opposite real-life husband Thomas Sadoski (The Newsroom), who also delivers a solid performance as the mostly pitiful cop Matty.
But despite the talent surrounding him, a show like this needs an almost transcendent anchor, and Tom Holland is mostly just … there. While the Spider-Man: No Way Home star can deliver, and it’s always nice to see A-listers who came up through the Marvel pipeline try to de-corporatize their image (he has long[er] hair in this! And it’s occasionally greasy!), he doesn’t quite have the chops to make the character into anyone the memory-gapped Danny himself would remember for more than a day. He’s also faced with the Herculean task of standing up to actors who’ve made a name for themselves in in this genre (cough, Edward Norton, cough) and Holland just doesn’t live up in comparison.
The Crowded Room premieres June 9 on Apple TV+