‘The Crowded Room’ Review: Tom Holland and Amanda Seyfried in Apple TV+’s Twisty But Tedious Murder Mystery

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The opening minutes of Apple TV+’s The Crowded Room suggest a thriller.

In 1979 New York, a disturbed young man, Danny (Tom Holland), and his agitated companion, Ariana (Sasha Lane), open fire near Rockefeller Center. When only Thomas is captured — Ariana having disappeared without a trace — the cop in charge of his case (Thomas Sadoski) practically salivates at the idea that they might have nailed a serial killer.

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But his colleague, Rya (Amanda Seyfried), isn’t so sure. Over long conversations with Danny, now in prison awaiting his trial date, she begins to weave together a picture of his life — how he got to where he is, why he did what he did. As his truth is revealed, The Crowded Room pivots from gritty crime drama to something altogether sadder and more sentimental, with unfortunately mixed results.

Part of the issue is simply that The Crowded Room, created by Akiva Goldsman, runs too long — it has the feel of a miniseries that might have been better suited for the confines of a two-hour movie. Midway through its ten episodes, there’s a reveal big enough that a whole episode is dedicated to retracing the story so far from the perspective of an entirely different character. It’s only then that the central premise of the series comes fully into focus, that the momentum starts to pick up, that we get a fuller understanding of what’s really at stake in Danny’s trial.

But until then, the hours can feel like an extended bit of wheel-spinning. The episodes are built around long conversations between Rya and Danny, in which the investigator tiptoes around sensitive spots while pressing, gently, for real answers. Danny unspools lengthy anecdotes about his life before the arrest, which we experience as languorously paced scenes whose purpose isn’t always clear. The fact that it’s not very hard to guess the big reveal, especially if you take the initiative of Googling the Daniel Keyes book credited with inspiring the series, can make the wait more frustrating.

In Danny’s telling, the people in his life become divided into saviors and monsters. There’s the angelic mother (Emmy Rossum) cracking under the thumb of an abusive stepfather (Will Chase). The dream girl (Emma Laird) who floats in and out like a cloud on a breeze. A pair of mentors — one a burly Israeli landlord (Lior Raz) who doesn’t mind defending Danny with his fists, the other a Kingsman-like caricature of an English gentleman (Jason Isaacs) who doles out life lessons. And, of course, there’s Ariana, the troubled roommate who spends her nights getting lost in sex and drugs, and her mornings crying about how empty she feels after all of it.

Most of the characters are drawn at first in vague, stereotypical lines, all the better to reflect Danny’s blinkered point of view, though the fact that they’re two-dimensional on purpose doesn’t necessarily make them less boring. But part of the interest of The Crowded Room lies in seeing some of them change over the course of the season as the story opens up to consider them in new lights. Rossum is particularly compelling — equal parts maddening and heartbreaking — as a woman who knows perfectly well that conventional wisdom tends to pin the blame for troubled children on mothers, and who perhaps has more reason than most to fear the blowback coming her way. Chase, meanwhile, makes himself somehow more chilling by underplaying his menace as a cruel man so confident in his power that he rarely needs to scream to get his point across.

Seyfried exudes curiosity and warmth as Rya, who wins over Danny’s trust bit by bit. Although The Crowded Room goes to the trouble of giving her a personal life, complete with an unruly child (Thomas Parobek) and a pushy mom (Laila Robins), the role mainly just requires her to cycle through different shades of concern. Holland, as the main attraction, does get some opportunities to show off his range beyond anything a Spider-Man movie might afford him — but not as many as one might expect, since Danny spends most of the series seeming sweet and scared.

He has good reason to be terrified. The Crowded Room makes it impossible not to feel bad for Danny, who seems to get kicked around endlessly by life, both in the literal sense and the metaphorical one. When his lawyer (Christopher Abbott) argues in court that “everybody has failed this kid — his parents, his teachers, his neighbors, his friends, his community,” it plays as an understatement, considering how often we’ve seen the people around him actively inflict harm upon him. The miniseries is well-intentioned, meaning to engender empathy for Danny and other souls like him, and it’s convincing in its case that what he needs is care and not punishment. But particularly in the first few episodes, I found myself wondering at what point we might be going from witnessing his misery to wallowing in it, and whether this resolute focus on the worst things that have happened to Danny might not be reducing him to his traumas.

The Crowded Room does, eventually, bring more compassion into Danny’s life — sometimes from touchingly unexpected sources, like the prison yard mate who simply accepts Danny’s eccentricities with a shrug, or Ariana’s ex, who’s never met Danny but intuits that he could use a friend. “Please tell me you’re not saying love is the answer,” one character groans to another in the penultimate episode, only to be told “I actually am.”

By its final minutes, the series has tipped over into full-bore sentimentality. But it’s tough to say what, in the end, all these big feelings amount to. Its resolute focus on Danny, and the unique contours of his tale, make it tough to extract any grander message beyond the sense that this particular young man deserves our sympathy. For all its sprawling cast, extravagant episode count and lavish-looking sets, The Crowded Room suffers in the end from a lack of ambition.

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