Set in the 1950s, the series created by Little Marvin chronicles the first ten days of a black family in a white suburb of Los Angeles. Using the horror genre to portray a dark period in America, THEM plunges us into a chilling, rambling tale sprinkled with the supernatural and hard to bear.
1953. An African-American family, the Emories, takes advantage of the “great migration” to flee the segregationist South and settle in a small, clean pavilion in California. A context shared by more than 7 million African-Americans between the years 1910 and 1960: fleeing racism, they found refuge in the northern states, considered more welcoming. Far from gaining unanimity among white communities, this migration was very often greeted with violence and racial abuse. Helped by her co-producer Lena waithe (Master of None), Little marvin is inspired by this sad time as the setting for the first season of this horrific anthology, broadcast on Prime Video.
As soon as they arrive in a housing estate where only whites reside, the Emories are faced with a barrage of threats, harassment and are forced to pack up. Added to this the presence of evil beings haunting their homes, the atmosphere of the series is meant to be heavy. Balanced between the hostility of their neighbors and supernatural appearances, the family never has time to breathe. A choice clearly assumed by the creators. In total immersion and forced to adopt the point of view of the Emories, the audience suffocates in the face of the cascade of attacks suffered by the main characters. Attacks that continue to intensify. Of the ten episodes, no respite or touch of humor is tolerated. The violence is such that sometimes the viewing is suspended. This is particularly the case for episodes 5 and 9, which are difficult to complete.
We are locked in a perpetual anguish, accentuated by the strident music, the incongruous framing and the excess of close-ups on the faces. We find here all the classics of the genre. In line with African-American horror works with a political dimension, THEM recalls the formulas used by Tales from the Hood (1995), Get out (2017), Watchmen (2019) or again Lovecraft Country (2020). Phrases that use hyperbole and sensationalism to paint the scale of racial injustices in the United States. But unlike its predecessors, the series struggles to find its marks.
On paper, this series has it all: beautiful imagery, pastel decor, phenomenal actors and a progressive discourse in the age of time. We also salute the masterful soundtrack, taken from the classics of the 50s and 70s, which dresses the abject dramas of the series and gives a certain rhythm to the whole. Very often, iconic music extracts even replace the dialogues, offering them a new perspective. Unfortunately, its qualities end there. In order to impact people’s minds, the filmmakers overuse the codes from supremacist folklore and try to bring them all together in one season: blackface, hanging dolls, lynchings and other grimacing joys. And by wanting to do too much, the story ends up losing flavor. So that the remarkable performance of the couple Ashley thomas (Henry Emory) and Deborah Ayorinde (Lucky Emory) cannot hide the undeniable fact: the plot is sorely lacking in depth. The characters have no dimension and everything is based on an exaggerated Manichaeism. The caricatured racism of whites and the over-victimization of black characters even end up boring. Nothing seems to progress and the same patterns repeat episode after episode. The Emories, although the main characters, seem to exist only through the attacks of their enemies: THEM teaches us almost nothing about their personality, their passions or their aspirations. As a result, the public struggles to attach themselves to this nightmarish everyday family.
Another weakness of this fiction: the ambient disorganization. Filmmakers juggle multiple plots and fail to develop them well. The setbacks of Ruby Emory (Shahady Wright Joseph), the adolescent marginalized in high school; the professional problems of the father, humiliated by his employer; the recent and painful bereavement of the family; the psychopathic milkman or even Betty’s daily life (Alison pill), neighbor and hateful antagonist, all the intrigues overlap to create a wobbly and indigestible patchwork at times. We come out with a feeling of confusion about the real purpose of the series. Like Misha green and of Jordan peele, Little marvin uses horror and fantasy to illustrate the extreme nature of racism in the United States. But it is clear that the scriptwriting awkwardness and the chaotic atmosphere serve the message conveyed by this series.
Finally, if the objective of THEM was to shock and traumatize us, the bet is successful. The chain of sordid events leaves no one indifferent. But although it does not lack daring, the series loses in authenticity by dint of wanting to shake its audience at all costs. Through its sensitive, murky and gratuitous scenes, it is difficult to understand its purpose, other than that of showing in a perverse and voyeuristic way the grief of a black family. Who is the target? Was it really useful to present such a level of brutality? What does this work bring to black horror ? The answers may lie in the next season of this anthological fiction. Hopefully a new plot will allow the creators of the series to fill in the weaknesses.
• Original title : Them
• Creators: Little marvin
• Actors: Deborah Ayorinde, Ashley Thomas, Alison Pill
• Release date : 2021
• Duration of episodes: 52 minutes