GORE IN THE STORE
Starring Deborah Ayorinde, Henry Emory, Alison Pill, Shahadi Wright Joseph.
Streaming on Amazon Prime.
Unsettling and enraging from the off, this first season of THEM, a proposed anthology series, immediately marks itself out as possibly the most confrontational and unforgiving examination of racism through a horror lens yet. On a surface level, comparisons can be made to LOVECRAFT COUNTRY as well as the films of Jordan Peele. THEM is a far more uncomfortable watch stripped of the humorous asides that Peele brings to his projects and the cosmic pulp stylings of LOVECRAFT COUNTRY. Although the supernatural is at play here it takes a near distant second to the realistic issue at the heart of the series that proves itself to be infinitely more distressing. Indeed, it is presented to such an unapologetic degree here that THEM may prove to be unwatchable for some.
This debut season follows the Emory family, mother and father Livia and Henry and their two daughters Ruby and Gracie Lee as they from the Midwest to Compton, Los Angeles after an incident that we only glimpse in the opening scenes. Trauma obviously haunts Livia and Henry, for her from the incident and Henry’s experience in the war eight years before. Sadly, they find no respite in their new home as the entirely white neighbourhood take no time in expressing their displeasure and prejudice as soon as the Emory’s step onto their own front lawn. Led by neighbouring housewife Betty, a hateful campaign is immediately initiated to ensure the Emory family leave as soon as possible. Adding to this terror is the appearance of spectral figures taking the form of each members own personal demons, an added pressure to the already frayed sanity of Livia and Henry.
The hostility they face, both at home and at Henry’s work, an engineering firm entirely populated by whites who look at Henry with disdain and puzzlement, is examined in punishing and excruciating detail. Nearly every sequence in the entire series is an example of what African Americans had to put up with in their day to day lives in 1950’s America and sadly also in the present day. The frank openness with which Betty and her cadre of fellow housewives first casually discuss their new neighbours is shocking and only leads onto more sickening actions. As they proceed THEM becomes a more difficult watch, as misery is piled upon misery upon yet more misery. The series has been criticised for exploiting black trauma in such detail in the name of entertainment. The show’s creator Little Marvin has stated that the show’s harrowing nature is an honest examination of the day-to-day experience of the black American while it is hard to refute the other viewpoint of black people fed up of yet another narrative that may be perceived as exploiting such trauma for entertainment purposes.
When the series midpoint comes with its own viewer warning some viewers may find themselves in agreement with the show’s detractors. That it never lets up after this horrifying set piece will no doubt turn many viewers away. Despite its stylish direction, helmed most notably by genre veterans Daniel Stamm and Ti West among others, the supernatural elements come across as a heavy-handed afterthought. THEM may have benefitted from dropping its genre stylings entirely and concentrating more on its real-world issues. The sub-plot involving Betty’s back story and own trauma also comes across as an underdeveloped self-reflex. There is also the streaming show cliché of stopping the show at its high point of narrative momentum to indulge in a penultimate flashback episode that over explains the supernatural back story, see also THE HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR.
While hard to recommend THEM, it is hard to disagree with the shows mission of showing the punishing degradation that a large population of the world find themselves subjected to with such horrifying regularity. It could be necessary that we as an audience must face up to such horrors, especially currently. The desire for such a reckoning is at the shows heart but the point may get lost in all its unflinching detail with those who have the stomach to watch it through to its ambiguous ending that offers little in the way of much needed catharsis.