“Them” inadvertently serves as a reminder of how deftly Jordan Peele threaded the needle of social commentary and horror with “Get Out,” and how elusive that target can be. Comparisons are inevitable to Peele’s films and HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” but this 10-part Amazon anthology series proves provocative and bingeable while taking some questionable detours en route to its ultimate destination.
Peele (who’s also a producer on “Lovecraft”) found a creatively rich vein in using the conventions of horror to depict the horrors of racism, in the HBO show bloodily straining that through a historical filter.
Created by Little Marvin with a team that includes “The Chi’s” Lena Waithe, “Them” attempts a similar feat, conjuring a series that’s undeniably creepy and horrifically violent, but oddly disjointed. Designed as a stand-alone season a la FX’s “American Horror Story,” the ambitious narrative also leaves behind a few conspicuous loose ends.
The premise involves a Black family moving into the Los Angeles community of Compton in 1953 — a period known as the Great Migration, as African Americans fled the South — taking up residence in an all-White neighborhood that is openly aghast at their arrival.
Leading the mob is Betty (Alison Pill), whose inner turmoil belies her outward Stepford wife appearance, smiling through gritted teeth at the suggestion the women should “leave this to the boys.”
“This is how it begins. How it changes. With one family,” she says.
As for that family, the dad, Henry Emory (Ashley Thomas), has a good job as an engineer, but one that requires swallowing a steady diet of racism from his condescending boss. Henry’s wife, Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde), brings a terrible past with her from North Carolina, a grim interlude that will eventually be revealed in gruesome (too gruesome, possibly, for some) detail, explaining the impetus behind the move west.
Nor are their young daughters, impressively played by Shahadi Wright Joseph and Emily Hurd, spared the ordeal as the episodes progress, mixing supernatural flourishes with more mundane horrors.
“Them” maintains a sense of dread with eerie music and disturbing images, but the macabre component to what’s happening coexists somewhat awkwardly with issues surrounding segregation, corruption and financial exploitation.
Juggling that stew of material, the series manages to be bracing and uncomfortable and still feel uneven. That’s a byproduct, perhaps, of employing the limited-series format as opposed to a movie, as the individual episodes move briskly enough (several run less than 40 minutes), but the overall story feels stretched out in the middle, then rushed at the end.
The central cast is extremely good, and there are plenty of nifty period beats, like Henry buying a black-and-white TV and sitting down to watch “Father Knows Best,” the perfect symbol of carefree ’50s suburbia.
It’s understandable why horror has become a popular genre when it comes to examining the injustices of the past. As CNN’s Brandon Tensley noted, there’s a long history of that on screen, but “Get Out’s” success revived the practice and emboldened studios, with several other examples, such as the movie “Antebellum,” in the few years since.
“Them” carves out its own place in that continuum, presenting an unflinching view of hatred and fear, with violence as a brutal consequence. Yet the net effect underscores the challenge of wedding sobering reality and horror conventions, in a way that’s intriguing but less than fully satisfying.
“Them” premieres April 9 on Amazon.
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