The Crowded Room
Apple TV+

‘The Crowded Room’ Has Too Many Angles Crammed Into It

The Crowded Room tries to be a psychological drama, a coming-of-age story, and a law procedural culminating in courtroom maneuvers and meltdowns – all angles that crowd its premise.

The Crowded Room
Akiva Goldsman
Apple TV+
9 June 2023

Tom Holland, one of our most beloved 21st-century theatre kids, has worked harder than most to prove himself a “serious” actor. His iconic roles of Billy Elliott onstage and Spiderman in the current Marvel multiverse, while impressive, never fully showed the Englishman’s range, and we know this “range” (like what we habitually get from Holland’s paramour, Zendaya) has long become what distinguishes “movie stars” from “cultural icons”.

Still under 30, he has spared no effort in establishing himself as a versatile character actor in the past five years, lamentably with, at best, middling results. Gritty thriller dramas like Antonio CamposThe Devil All the Time and the Russo BrothersCherry failed to connect with the audiences. Doug Liman‘s big-budget sci-fi Chaos Walking, and Ruben Fleisher‘s video game adaptation Uncharted, went relatively unnoticed compared to their ambition.

What’s seldom mentioned is that Holland did excel in all of those roles. He excels, too, in the limited series The Crowded Room, his latest gig with Apple TV+, which he also executive produces. The ten-part drama about Danny Sullivan, a young man arrested for a public shooting incident in 1979 New York, is another prestige flaunt for the zealous streaming service, showcasing Apple’s spending power: marvelous set pieces, a stellar cast going above and beyond, and a major-league creator in Akiva Goldsman. Still, the enormous effort falls flat through convoluted, sophomoric storytelling and the overall narrative that inexplicably misses what’s most relevant about the story itself. 

It’s impossible to discuss The Crowded Room meaningfully due to its premise being its own plot twist, which also affects the show negatively. At the center of the story is Danny, a mercurial teenager arrested after participating in a public shooting incident with the mysterious Ariana (a solid Sasha Lane). Ariana disappears and Danny finds himself imprisoned and continually interrogated by a woman named Rya Goodwin (Amanda Seyfried), whose motives ought to be unclear but aren’t. As Rya and Danny explore his childhood and acquaintances in a series of flashbacks and flash-sideways, we are supposed to learn the “real” context of the shooting, how it came about, and who the actual culprit was.

 It’s a compelling enough idea, the problem being that what’s going on is clear from the outset. It is, in fact, so clear that The Crowded Room’s opening credits unequivocally reveal its plot twists, assuming one can read on a fourth-grade level. Worse, however, are the utterly clichéd setups and settings, clunky editing, and shockingly vapid dialogue that all hint too heavily at the “truth”. Danny’s all-too-bizarre cohort of sidekicks and Rya’s incessant suggestive questions about the nature of his relationship with them expose the plot in the first episode. How an Oscar-winning hitmaker such as Goldsman could have written this, let alone why he would insist on keeping something frankly un-essential to the viewing hidden until the latter part of the series, is beyond me. 

The issues with The Crowded Room keep piling on because of this juvenile complacency, and Holland’s and Seyfried’s herculean efforts to convey depth do little to save the day. Six of the ten episodes are almost entirely devoted to the unnecessary conceit, with the remaining four shakily pulling together the many remaining threads. This is a shame because, beneath the mess of “surprising” the viewers lies a relevant, poignant story that deserved to be told much better. 

The following might draw you to the show – or deter you from it. Firstly, The Crowded Room is loosely based on true events. The title of the book this mini-series is based on reveals what the show is about (as it does in the title sequence). Suffice it to say it’s an exceptional, multifaceted legal and ethical case that set a precedent for some highly filmable phenomena. Secondly, The Crowded Room is (trying to be) many things, a psychological drama, a coming-of-age story, and a law procedural culminating in courtroom maneuvers and meltdowns. None of these three angles get the attention they deserve as the material drowns under the weight of the show’s gimmicks but all three are mass audience favorites and are tackled earnestly.

Perhaps the one thing that works in The Crowded Room is the emotional gravitas that Holland gives his greatly suffering character and the empathy Seyfried offers him throughout the ten-hour drag. These characters bring about an emotionally satisfying conclusion, with the final scenes being easily the best of the series. The supporting cast, ranging from Jason Isaacs to a brilliant Christopher Abbott, also does their best with the little they are given but cannot set the path straight for a meandering narrative mishmash. 

I lament the importance of The Crowded Room’s message getting lost and the seemingly good intentions of the creative team never getting the room to breathe. How people like Danny Sullivan are treated in America’s criminal justice system is a hugely relevant topic. The show’s heart is in the right place, with some powerful observations about children from broken families, the oppression single mothers suffer, and the need to fully understand any criminal perpetrator’s circumstances. That it all gets lost or buried under gimmickry and confusion on which angle to pursue at any given moment is a shame.

Even though the ten episodes are too long for the thread the creators decided to pursue, there is a lot to be told about this story that isn’t. For example, the best dramatic exchange is a heated polemic on “how to proceed” between the judge, DA, and Sullivan’s defenders. Yet, this courtroom drama only kicks off in the penultimate episode and it’s over within a few scenes and under 20 minutes of screen time. When we finally reach the kernel of the many issues with Danny’s case, there is no time to develop them. I’m baffled that the writers, especially Goldsman, chose the angle they did as The Crowded Room‘s main focus and not one of the many more compelling aspects of this fascinating tale. 

Nevertheless, despite the show being like many of the more famous releases revolving around similar topics (which must remain unnamed so that we don’t spoil the exasperating “twist”), viewers seem to like this psychological thriller. The Crowded Room’s approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes is 89%, based on 500+ reviews. The impressions on IMDB are somewhat more mixed but overall positive, proving that psych drama with thriller and Bildungsroman elements will likely always find a sizeable audience. This show casts its net very wide and I’m unsurprised that plenty of fish gets caught regardless of negative reviews.

To be fair, The Crowded Room‘s acting, cinematography, and occasionally chilling atmosphere reward those who stay with it. It would be lovely to get an alternative version of this story with a sharp focus on the possible backgrounds of certain crimes and how these situations should be handled.

RATING 5 / 10