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SPOILER ALERT: This review contains spoilers from “The Crowded Room.”
Over 20 years ago, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman penned the script for “A Beautiful Mind,” the Oscar-winning biopic of mathematician and diagnosed schizophrenic John Nash. To convey Nash’s subjective experience of his condition, “A Beautiful Mind” pulled a bait-and-switch. Early in the film, we meet Nash’s college roommate, who becomes his lifelong friend; later, it’s revealed the roommate was a figment of Nash’s imagination. At the time, the twist was effective enough to earn Goldsman an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
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The limited series “The Crowded Room,” created by Goldsman for Apple TV+, attempts the same trick to greatly diminished returns. A simple Wikipedia search shows that “The Crowded Room” was inspired by Billy Milligan, the first defendant acquitted by invoking a case of dissociative identity disorder in the late 1970s. But ahead of the show’s release, critics were asked not to disclose the fractured mental state of Danny Sullivan, the Milligan analog played with doe-eyed naiveté by Tom Holland. This puzzled me, given the eminently Googleable nature of the premise. Then I started watching.
Written largely by Goldsman, who has sole or shared credit on each of the series’ 10 episodes, “The Crowded Room” itself treats Danny’s mental illness, formerly known as multiple personality disorder, like a bombshell to be withheld for maximum impact. The choice is a grievous mistake that torpedoes the show, and not just because the big “surprise” lands with a thud when it finally arrives. By being so oblique about Danny’s true nature, “The Crowded Room” is left with a vacuum where a hook should be, one it declines to fill with a compelling pitch. Viewers with sufficient context will merely be bored. Those going in cold will be confounded by a pilot that spends over an hour on an unremarkable New York high-schooler who feels vaguely anxious and out of place. To cite Holland’s signature role, at least Peter Parker meets the radioactive spider right away.
“The Crowded Room” opens with a shooting at Rockefeller Center that lands Danny in Rikers Island, where he’s interviewed by psychologist Rya Goodwin (Amanda Seyfried). Danny claims his friend and roommate Ariana (Sasha Lane) fired the gun, but Rya keeps poking holes in his story. This is, of course, a lot of attention to train on an act of violence that results in no serious injuries. (The bullet only grazes its intended target.) The real Billy Milligan was a serial rapist, a detail “The Crowded Room” presumably alters in order to make Danny more sympathetic. His would-be victim, too, is seemingly engineered to generate sympathy, though their identity is left anonymous until several hours in.
After her astonishing turn as Elizabeth Holmes in “The Dropout,” Seyfried is criminally underused as Danny’s interlocutor. “The Crowded Room” could’ve structured itself around her character, an academic scrambling for tenure as she navigates divorce and single motherhood. In fact, the pace does pick up considerably once Goldsman drops the ruse and turns his focus to Danny’s defense, spearheaded by Rya. But that shift only occurs past the series’ halfway point. (The show’s namesake visual metaphor is first introduced in the seventh episode.) Before that, “The Crowded Room” spends interminable hours on Danny’s own account of his life, long after it’s obvious what’s really going on.
Danny grows up with an overworked single mother (Emmy Rossum) and diabolical stepfather (Will Chase), mourning the loss of his deceased twin brother. As the years go by, Danny encounters a series of guardian angels: Jonny (Levon Hawke), the teenage best friend who peer pressures him into dealing drugs; Yitzhak (Lior Raz), the Israeli landlord who offers Danny a place to stay when things at home reach their breaking point; Jack (Jason Isaacs), a debonair Brit who promises to connect Danny with his biological father. By the time Jack shows up, it’s clear Danny’s story is meant to beggar belief. “The Crowded Room” still squanders time giving Ariana her own arc as an ineffective red herring, or having Jonny rescue Danny from a local gangster in a truly ridiculous scene involving coerced fellatio as payment for a firearm.
Postponing the pivotal twist at least delays the onset of the showboating, awards-bait kind of performance one associates with concepts like “The Crowded Room.” When it arrives, with Holland toggling between accents and physical affects, the result feels more like a compilation reel from a star struggling to break out of the Marvel orbit than a convincing transformation. (Holland has said the shoot was so taxing he plans to take a year off from acting.) Yet “The Crowded Room” pads out its more straightforward back half, too, revisiting entire scenes like Rya investigating Danny’s home. We’re meant to be seeing them with new eyes, but their context isn’t sufficiently altered to make them worth running back.
Besides serving as a vehicle for Holland, “The Crowded Room” attempts to position itself as a call for empathy towards those living with mental illness. The scripts crowbar in contemporary wisdom about the importance of treatment and the shortcomings of the medical system, ideas that scan conspicuously out of time and place. There’s even an admonishment about Danny’s white privilege relative to his fellow inmates of color, a line that feels especially egregious since it comes out of the mouth of a prosecutor in 1980s New York. “The Crowded Room” wants to argue against sensationalizing a condition as controversial as DID while also using Danny’s diagnosis as a dramatic reveal.
“The Crowded Room” squanders ample resources in its unsuccessful efforts. Director Kornél Mundruczó, who helms the pilot, gets to create Danny’s environment in lavish period detail; an entire episode is built around a flashy, undoubtedly pricey Pink Floyd sync. But it’s not excess “The Crowded Room” needs. A far more concise — one might even say movie-length — version of the story would burn through much less goodwill en route to a modest payoff. Instead, we get a protracted portrait of a mind that turns out far from beautiful.
The first three episodes of “The Crowded Room” are now streaming on Apple TV+, with new episodes premiering weekly on Fridays.