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The Crowded Room

Take one part “A Beautiful Mind.” Add a few dashes of “Euphoria.” Sprinkle in some Oscar bait-style writing, cinematography, and a ceaseless strings-heavy score. Èt voila! You have the utterly pointless and eminently skippable limited series that is “The Crowded Room.” At best, these 10 hours of Apple TV’s latest drama will provide some background noise while you fold laundry, but at worst, this is the shallowest dramatic exploration of mental illness in some time.

It is beyond the scope of this reviewer’s imagination to wonder what exactly creator and head writer Akiva Goldsman, best known for writing the John Nash biopic that won four Academy Awards (and, less illustriously, “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons”), was thinking. The plot, loosely adapted from Daniel Keyes’ nonfiction novel The Minds of Billy Milligan, follows Danny Sullivan (Tom Holland, once again playing a traumatized teenager a la “The Devil All the Time”) starting in the summer of 1979. Danny lives in upstate New York with his meek mother, Candy (Emmy Rossum), and abusive stepfather Marlin (Will Chase), and mourns the loss of his twin brother Adam, who appears in childhood flashbacks. A talented artist but unpopular in school, Danny is too anxious to socialize beyond two close friends, happy-go-lucky magician Johnny (Levon Hawke) and skilled athlete Mike (Sam Vartholomeos). 

Life at home and school is tough. So, one day, after being rescued from a beating at the hands of bullies by new neighbor Yitzak Safdie (Lior Raz), Danny moves in with the relative stranger across the street from his own. Ariana (Sasha Lane), an emotionally distant young woman who seems to party hard and cry even harder, lives there too. After learning Ariana continues to fear her childhood rapist will track her down, Danny obtains a gun for her to feel safe. She refuses the gift, and after some muddled storytelling, she and Danny eventually wind up in Rockefeller Center, trailing Ariana’s rapist. Danny tries to shoot but freezes. Ariana takes the gun and fires a few shots, grazing the man’s arm. After a brief interlude, Danny is arrested at Yitzak’s house, and no one can find Safdie or Ariana.

Thus enters the plot device that frames most of the series. Doctor Rya Goodwin (Amanda Seyfried) is a professor of psychology called onto the case by Detective Matty Dunn (Thomas Sadoski). She proceeds to have a series of sessions with Danny, to try and understand his plight in time for a proper defense at trial. Since she’s determined to have certain ignored mental illness diagnoses recognized by the DMS (now known as the DSM), Goodwin’s characterization is marked by a series of trite feminist tropes: difficult relationship with ex-husband, overbearing mother, tantrum-prone child. These subplots need depth and nuance, not casual girl-boss framing. 

Seyfried does a fairly good job with what she’s been given and gains momentum by doing plenty of acting with her eyes. Indeed, this show might have worked better as a two-person play without grandiose sequences in other countries or melodramatic staging. Even the lighting and direction feel right out of the early aughts, which bizarrely makes sense since this project was originally slated back in the 1990s to be directed by James Cameron and later by Joel Schumacher. It’s as though the general idea never really left that gestation period. Even the sixth episode, directed by TV veteran Alan Taylor, cannot be rescued from its writing, nor should it take six to seven hour-long episodes for a story to fully reveal and heighten its stakes.

Still, there’s Holland, who, like frequent scene partner Seyfried, brings considerable pathos and effort to the role. I cannot be too specific about what he does or why he does it, but there are glimmers of a truly tremendous actor in him. He conveys lightness and joy with equal surefootedness as he does moments of unimaginable emotional devastation. The problem, I fear, is his choice of projects. Perhaps playing a relentlessly heavy role like Danny Sullivan is a reprieve and a welcome challenge compared to the grind of playing Marvel’s Spider-Man. But there are not too many differences between this ceaselessly dark exploration of mental illness and, say, “Precious.” Both feature great performances, agony, and to some degree, a sense of realism, but neither transcends the bounds of artistic imagination. And frankly, both are interminably dark, so when they insist on sprinkling hope fairy dust all over the narrative, the audience is robbed of the story’s honesty. (In contrast, HBO’s “Barry” is a hilarious, terrific exploration of trauma and PTSD with 30-minute episodes; the same is true for FX’s “You’re the Worst,” to date the TV show that comes closest to portraying my own severe depression and anxiety.) By the time “The Crowded Room” started pulling Raymond Burr-era “Perry Mason”-esque tricks in the courtroom, I was annoyed beyond belief anyone would think this was a reasonable way to depict how mentally ill folks are treated by the American criminal justice system.

Somewhere, deep down in this tragic tale of a young man struggling with his mental health, there's a good story, a universal one, about how this country’s nonexistent social safety net constantly and spectacularly fails vulnerable groups: children, the mentally ill, abused partners, people of color. But when you try to tell that story with lines of dialogue that are never explained, and dollop in B-roll of late 1970s New York that looks like it was filmed with a completely different camera than the one used on the actors, and add a smorgasbord of Hollywood’s cliches of mental health, you cannot succeed. Creating awareness and sending a message are all very well. The quality of the art you use in the process matters too.

The entire season was screened for review. The first three episodes of "The Crowded Room" are available on Apple TV+ on June 9th. 

Nandini Balial

Nandini Balial is a film and TV critic, essayist, and interviewer.

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Film Credits

The Crowded Room movie poster

The Crowded Room (2023)

Rated NR

600 minutes


Tom Holland as Danny Sullivan

Amanda Seyfried as Rya Goodwin

Emmy Rossum as Candy Sullivan

Will Chase as Marlin Reid

Sasha Lane as Ariana

Christopher Abbott as Stan Camisa

Jason Isaacs as Jack Lamb


Writer (inspired by the book "The Minds of Billy Milligan")

Writer (created by)

Writer (developed by)





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