True crime has arguably reached its saturation point in 2023. The genre has been wrung dry, pulled in every possible direction to form innumerable permutations and combinations of violence and voyeurism. At its most tired, the genre has now given us The Crowded Room. Though billed as a psychological thriller, it also admits that it is an inspired take on one of the most unique criminals in American history, therefore not completely divorced from this field. In fact, it is the show’s association with true crime that brings its downfall even in the presence of a highly-imaginative script and stellar performances.
The Crowded Room throws us smack dab into the middle of the criminal activity that will unfold itself in the subsequent ten episodes. Danny (Tom Holland) accompanied by Ariana (Sasha Lane) follows another man into the busy Rockefeller Center on an unassuming afternoon. With a gun in a bunched-up paper bag and a bewildered look in his eyes, Danny is not a willing killer, until Ariana speaks words of support before shouting at him to shoot the man they are following. The man escapes with a simple injury, as the police track down Danny hours later and apprehend him, while his accomplice is declared a fugitive.
Unwilling to give up Ariana’s location, while also maintaining his plea of innocence, Danny is unable to explain his actions in a transparent manner. As Rya (Amanda Seyfried) steps in to interrogate Danny, she finds herself tangled in an expanding web of unlikely coincidences.
The Crowded Room
Creator: Akiva Goldsman
Cast: Tom Holland, Amanda Seyfried, Sasha Lane, Will Chase, Lior Raz, Emmy Rossum, and others
Runtime: 45-55 minutes
Storyline: In 1979, Danny Sullivan is apprehended for a crime he claims to not have committed. Locked in an interrogation room, a thrilling sequence of events spill out that led Danny to this point
Rya’s efforts to reach out to Danny and lay out the sequence of events that have led him to the interrogation room form a large part of The Crowded Room’s first half, which progresses in the manner of a true crime show. When that is resolved, the second half adopts a different tune to play out a more humanist story. It is here that the show flounders and the confusion is, unfortunately, palpable from the very beginning.
Switching between events that happened in the past and the dreary interrogation room where Danny is currently held, The Crowded Room attempts a method that has pushed many true crime shows to success; like Mindhunter (2017) and Criminal (2019) before it, creator Akiva Goldsman seeks to establish that delicate thread of connection between an interrogator and a criminal, between Rya and Danny. However, a lack of emphasis on Rya’s existence outside this confined room renders this method lacklustre. Meanwhile, in the second half, The Crowded Room makes a huge tonal shift to make an emotional plea on behalf of Danny. It turns into a courtroom drama where it wants to convince us to look beyond Danny’s actions and see what prompted him to become this way.
To be fair to the show, both these parts work decently individually. As a thriller, it satisfies a basic itch, and as a drama, it hits all the emotional notes, but together they don’t appear to be connected by a narrative bridge. In executing the horrors of a thriller, Danny is built up as an unreliable narrator, whom we are encouraged to suspect rather than understand.
Though Tom Holland and Amanda Seyfried make robust efforts to enhance this show through their performances, The Crowded Room collapses under the weight of its own questionable choices. That being said, these choices don’t necessarily take away from it being a potboiler entertainer. However, with a creator and actors of such stature, one can’t help but focus on missed opportunities.
Episodes 1-4 of The Crowded Room are now streaming on Apple TV+ with new episodes releasing every Friday