[SXSW Review] Amazon Series “Them” Gets Off to Solid Start with Intensity and Relentless Terror

The logline for the latest Amazon Original series reads similar to HBO’s Lovecraft Country. Both center around a family attempting to navigate unwelcoming white spaces in the ‘50s, and both lean heavily into genre storytelling. Of Them’s first two episodes premiered at SXSW, it becomes clear that the inaugural season eschews horror-fantasy in favor of intense psychological horror that aims to induce visceral dread without any reprieve. Whether it can sustain that throughout all ten episodes remains to be seen, but so far, Them gets off to a solid start that thrives on relentless terror.

Them refers to the Emory family, an unwanted blight on Palmer Drive in Compton, California, in 1953. Before they even make it to sunny California for a fresh start, this family engenders itself so profoundly to the viewer thanks to a harrowing, disturbing prologue set in the South. The full details should reveal themselves much later in the season when audiences have been mentally prepared. This alarming event cuts to former teacher Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde) waking in the car from a nightmare, with her husband Henry (Ashley Thomas) at the wheel, and their two daughters, Ruby (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Gracie (Melody Hurd), in the backseat. Their arrival is met with hostilities from their neighbors, led by manipulative housewife Betty Wendell (Alison Pill). For the Emory family, danger comes from everywhere, inside and outside of the home.

The series makes it clear from the start that what will transpire over this season happens within a short 10-day period and doesn’t waste a second plunging straight into a pressure cooker with no release valve. Created by Little MarvinThem adds new, harrowing context to the familiar dark suburbia setting in horror. The unyielding tactics to goad the Emory family into abandoning their new home would be enough to chip away at anyone’s mental health. But Lucky and Henry endured significant traumas before, thanks to distressing details of their lives in North Carolina dispersed in careful measure. Marvin seamlessly blends in suburban decay in the form of supernatural elements, too, to create an onslaught for his characters with no room to catch their breath before the next crisis strikes.

The first two episodes are directed by Nelson Cragg (HomelandBreaking Bad), a two-time Emmy-nominated cinematographer, and he uses his skills to his fullest advantage here. He makes heavy use of split diopter shots, canted tilts, and unique POV shots to strike that juxtaposition between sunny, idyllic suburbia and its underlying evil. Cragg’s direction is matched by the stellar production design; the pastel-washed hues of the bright suburban street paints a drastically different picture from the bold, vibrantly patterned interiors of the Emory home. It’s a distinctly different world than the rural North Carolina home they left behind and perhaps an even more strikingly different one than the bustling Los Angeles. All of which to say that the worldbuilding is lived-in and rich.

So far, Them introduces an instantly winsome family you desperately wish to see through what promises to be a terror-filled and nightmarish ten days. Heartbreak lies ahead, and so, too, does a lot of horrors if the eerie basement scenes or a bubbling grave are any indications. In just two episodes, Ayorinde and Thomas already showcased an impressive range, bringing incredible emotional depth to their characters. Pill’s villainous Betty also has layers, but the series luckily doesn’t attempt to humanize her.

Marvin’s series is off to an auspicious start. That this season, dubbed “Covenant,” is to be a self-contained story as part of a planned anthology series bodes well, as it means that there’s a clear narrative focus designed for the Emory family that should bring closure by episode ten. Them’s brilliant pacing and mystery building hooks you from the first scene. If it can maintain that nail-biting momentum, it has the potential to outclass its contemporaries with terror-inducing ease.

Them releases on Amazon Prime Video on April 9, 2021.