First look UK TV review: Them
James R | On 11, Apr 2021
“If you want your neighbours to accept you, you need to make them feel safe.” That’s the advice from a police officer in Them, Amazon’s new horror series that follows the struggles of a Black family in 1950s America. It’s a series that plays with the line between supernatural-tinged scares and harrowing prejudice and cruelty that’s all too real, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that this isn’t really a horror show, just a series parading things that are horrifying.
The Emorys are one of the many families moving during what’s known as The Great Migration, the period when families from the South headed north to build new lives founded on equality and opportunity. What engineer Henry (Ashley Thomas), his wife Livia (Deborah Ayorinde) and their daughters, Ruby (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Gracie Lee (Melody Hurd), find is the opposite, as their all-white neighbourhood turn on them.
The family’s house – which once had a ban on selling it a Black family written into its deed – becomes a battleground for them, as they try to demonstrate that they belong as much as the callous people around them. Alison Pill is chillingly convincing as Betty, the queen bee leading the onslaught of nasty bullying, and the show observes the everyday, tiny acts of racism that range from off-the-cuff remarks that may or may not be unconscious to the experience of being the only non-white person in a workplace. Thomas and Ayorinde are excellent at conveying the traumatic, draining feat of navigating this hostile environment, whether it’s breaking down in a bathroom or standing up to kids wielding sticks.
But the series struggles to justify the need to rake through their gruelling, tragic trauma, other than for the sake of spelling out how horrible it is. The stylish surface, from period-perfect costume to confident camerawork, impressed, but supernatural flourishes such as a blackface phantom on a TV unsubtly reinforce the explicit way the show spells out its subtext on a superficial level – compared to the superior Get Out and Lovecraft Country, Them feels less like an exploration of America’s lingering, insidious racism and more a piece of art exploiting that experience for shock and entertainment value. By the time the dog gets it, your stomach may well have had enough.
Them: Season 1 is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.