The painted picket fences. The perfectly cut lawns. The uniform, one-story houses filled with nuclear families. It’s the romantic picture of 50s American suburbia to which many in the country still long to return. But the image tends not to remember, nor admit, the absence of Black faces under its sentimental sunshine. The new horror series Them stabs that white nostalgia to pieces, leaving the artifice gored by the end.
The Emory family is moving from the rural American South to the idyllic suburbs of Los Angeles. As they drive into Compton – a sweet little town, built for Technicolor – stiff white smiles and frozen stares greet their arrival. Except for one reluctant wave, there’s no welcome for them as Black people.
The Emorys try their hardest to secure their place; this is their house. Henry (Ashley Thomas) is a decently paid father, working for his American Dream among the picket fences. He's married to Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde), who's nursing the trauma of losing a child. The remaining children, teenager Ruby (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and the young Gracie (Melody Hurd), are starting schools with predominately white student bodies.
Meanwhile, the Karen-like Betty Wendell (Alison Pill) stares venomously from across the road – plotting to remove the Emorys and resume her outwardly spotless life. She assembles an army of racist neighbours to frighten the family away, beginning with blaring music before moving onto more violent means. This abuse transcends to supernatural forces inside the house, writhing through the Emorys’ individual fears. Nowhere is safe.
The Emory family. Photo: Amazon
In interviews, writer/creator Little Marvin has stressed an emphasis on terror rather than horror. He creates an endlessly on-edge atmosphere: zero jump scares, but a whole country of tension. For this privileged critic, the distrust of white people has never been so shockingly demonstrated. They can and will change their painted smiles in half a breath.
Each episode is a growing avalanche of racially motivated misery. The Emorys struggle through racist language, monkey noises, and Black dolls lynched over their doorway. On top of that, Lucky has her own traumatising backstory that's revealed in episode five: probably the most horrible half-hour of television this year. And on top of that, the town has a long and prejudiced history that has passed down to its residents.
10 episodes of unrelenting agony and superfluous world-building is a bit overkill, bringing to mind the tiresome second season of The Handmaid's Tale. But Them whirls into so many curious and frightening directions that boredom is never a factor.
Allison Pill stars as the Karen-like Betty Wendell. Photo: Amazon
All of the above makes the series hard to recommend, despite its brilliance. The trailers ignited some controversy, with accusations of exploiting Black trauma for entertainment. There are times where that’s uncomfortably apparent, especially when you realise the Emorys rarely enjoy a happy moment – even before the terror they experience.
But Them is more intelligent than mere exploitation. Little Marvin twists the usual tropes and archetypes that have supported white-dominated culture for decades, much like what Jordan Peele achieved with the Oscar-winning Get Out. What makes Them scarier than the rest is its nauseating realities, which fracture that pretty little picture of American suburbia. And the United States as a whole.
Them is available on Amazon Prime Video from Friday 9 April
|What||Them, Amazon Prime review|
09 Apr 21 – 09 Apr 22, ON AMAZON PRIME VIDEO
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