Creating a horror series is a challenge. Creating ones that center on those outside of white people is even trickier. The traditional horror of white people going to the noise, or falling down and crawling like both legs shattered does not work. Get Out and Us demonstrated horror can entertain without being a hub of Black trauma. Unfortunately, THEM tries harder to go in a Lovecraft Country direction. The film is about a Black family—the Emory family—who moves to an all-white neighborhood in California where weird occurrences start to happen.
The directing is, oftentimes, amazing. The scenes, particularly dealing with negative emotions, are artistically shot and the close-ups pull you into some of the emotions like the parents’ Luck (Deborah Ayorinde) and Henry (Ashley Thomas) when they are scared, angry, or upset. The closeups can also force you to withdraw, such as the simmering white rage exhibited by their neighborhood and head racist white woman, Betty Wendell (Alison Pill). The show has so many beautifully shot scenes. However, some of the direction and close-ups move toward exploitative and voyeuristic. There is a balance that the directing here is unable to find, particularly how the different characters are shot.
The acting by all the cast can hook an audience to a degree. Deborah Ayorinde and Ashley Thomas’ chemistry works spectacularly. They show a loving couple who is fighting to make something more for their daughters, Ruby (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Gracie (Melody Hurd). Shahadi captures the teenage stress that comes with not only being a new student in school but the only Black student in school. Melody as Gracie is both adorable in some scenes and downright creepy in others. Their white nemesis, Betty, is also superbly portrayed by Alison who maintains a facade of decorum and social etiquette that slowly erodes. The series shows what brews beneath the surface slowly boiling over and it does it well for the most part.
However, THEM still feels unoriginal particularly because it’s not clear where the show is headed. We know initially that something dreadful must’ve happened prior to their move and may even have been the motivation to move. Shows often opt to withhold too much to keep viewers watching throughout a series just to get their questions answered rather than focusing on a story that keeps them invested and Them does the latter. It is either unsure of what it wants to be or it wants the viewer to think it’s unsure of what it wants to be. Is this about the mental deterioration of a family because of their past? Is it about a genuine haunting that is using their past to destroy their familial bond? We don’t know and four episodes in, the answer should be a bit clearer; however, it’s not.
The show also wastes time humanizing the inhumane character of Betty. Her backstory seems added solely for her to get sympathy from viewers and it’s past time to retire equating bad upbringings with racism. They are not and never have been synonymous and it’s exhausting enough seeing racists given the “woe is me” treatment in the mainstream media, we shouldn’t have to continually witness the same attention given to them in shows or films that center us. There seem to be a few too many white writers and directors on this show that centers on a Black family. At this point because of white saturation, one white writer or director handling our stories is now one too many.
In the media, in jobs, and in government we see the implication that when you are not white, you lack the objectivity to handle stories or situations that deal with your own community. Yet that lens is never pointed inward, despite film and shows over decades clearly demonstrating that white creators are hindered by their own biases when it comes to crafting Black characters or POC characters. Is the evilness of Betty Wendell’s character given an excuse because of white writers? Are the depictions of Sambo performing important to the plot or is it the idea of sensationalism by the white writers? Too many questions and doubts arise now when white people are part of the creation. Yet we didn’t create this doubt and we are tired of it.
THEM will be compared to HBO’s Lovecraft Country and will not fare as well, while for Jordan Peele’s horrors they cashed in on the basest similarities without giving the nuance and depth. There is too much uncertainty and trauma for the sake of trauma. We don’t need to steep our horror during a horrific historical time in order to create horror. It feels like this series is made so that white people can hurt us and use the n-word with impunity onscreen because it’s art. So it makes us wonder—who was this really made for? Depending on the answer this series has either been mishandled or it’s doing exactly what it’s meant to do for the audience it wants to watch. Will I finish the series? Maybe. Because I need questions answered.
The new terror anthology series, THEM, will premiere Friday, April 9th exclusively on Prime Video.