Friday, June 09, 2023

The Crowded Room, on Apple TV+

When Daniel Keyes first wrote Flowers for Algernon, it was considered science fiction. Now, it is more like straight fiction, or maybe part of a very small subcategory, along with Oliver Sacks’ novelistic nonfiction. Simply knowing this series is “inspired by” one of Keyes’ “nonfiction novels” should alert viewers to the nature of its strictly embargoed secret (which is pretty easy to stumble across). Even if you do not know who Danny Sullivan is based on, it is clear he needs a lot of psychological help in creator-writer Akiva Goldsman’s 10-part The Crowded Room, which premieres today on Apple TV+.

If you really think about it, even the show’s title is a spoiler, but fine, we’ll keep humoring everyone. The extremely twitchy Sullivan has been arrested for his role in a shooting in Rockefeller Center, an unfortunately high-profile location, but his reputed accomplice and ambiguous girlfriend Ariana remains at-large. Based on evidence found at Sullivan’s Queens home, Matty Dunne invites Dr. Rya Goodman (whom he dated once and wouldn’t mind dating again) to examine him. He thought the squirrelly kid could be the career-making case study Goodman has been looking for and he might be right—or Sullivan might become the rabbit-hole that professionally derails her.

If you enjoy flashbacks, you will love the next nine episodes. Sullivan’s weird behavior and crimes are clearly a product of his traumatic past. However, proving that to a jury will be difficult, especially since Sullivan is unable or unwilling to admit what happened. Goodman even struggles to convince Sullivan’s public defender, Stan Camisa, a Vietnam veteran, who is self-medicating his own trauma.

Set in 1979,
Crowded Room recreates period New York in all its grungy glory. The directors, especially executive producer Kornel Mundruczo (who helmed White God), nicely build and maintain the tension of Goodman’s sessions with Sullivan. The legal drama aspects of the series featuring Camisa and Goodman are also quite compelling. However, Goldman’s decision to shape the material into a psychological mystery-thriller was a mistake, because 95% of viewers will guess what is going on. Seriously, you already get it, right? If not, you will when you see how awkwardly certain characters interact.

If Goldman really wanted to present
Crowded Room as a big twist thriller, he should have focused and concentrated the narrative into considerably fewer episodes. He just could not preserve a sense of mystery over ten installments.

Be that as it may, there are still some excellent performances in
Crowded Room. Tom Holland shows tremendous and convincing range as Sullivan. Frankly, Christopher Abbott does some of his career-best work as Camisa. (It is also worth noting, with the cancelation of The Winchesters, Crowded Room is currently the only series dropping new episodes that features a Vietnam veteran as a major character.)

Jason Isaacs and Lior Raz are also terrific, as Jack Lamb, a friend of Sullivan’s birth father and Yitzhak, his Israeli landlord. They might sound like minor characters, but they have important roles to play in the narrative (which would be spoilery to explain). However, if any cast-member ultimately receives awards consideration, it should be Emmy Rossum, who is emotionally devastating as Sullivan’s tragic mother, Candy. For her part, Amanda Seyfried does a nice job drawing out Holland, Abbott, and Rossum, in some genuinely tense verbal cat-and-mouse scenes, but her character is basically an amalgamation of “Miracle Worker” cliches and conveniences for advancing the story.

The Crowded Room
is finely crafted and well-acted, but it is not nearly as clever as Goldman thinks it is. Often, it is too much of a lot of good things. Less probably would have been more. Recommended for viewers who really enjoy [abnormal] clinical psychiatry on film, The Crowded Room starts streaming today (6/9) on Apple TV+.