Us Vs. ‘Them’

Amazon’s featured horror series taps into something ugly

Log in to Amazon Prime Video today and there they are. Banner ads for ‘Them’—Amazon’s #1 show at the moment. 

Musician turned showrunner Little Marvin created ‘Them’, and Lena Waithe (Queen and Slim), executive produced it, with absolutely no affiliation to Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions. I can’t stress the lack of affiliation with Peele enough. ‘Them’ is a deep dive into the racism of mid-20th century America, but it lacks Peele’s humor and sense of moral ambiguity.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

And it dives super deep. So deep that you might think there is some other depth surrounding you as you watch, but there is not. There’s 1950s production design veneer,  1970s grindhouse title cards, and definitely Jordan Peele influence, including a Minnie Riperton needle drop, that the first user review served to me on the show’s IMDB page is titled, without self-awareness, “Jordan Peele, is that you?”

All of that is fine if this show were just an unoriginal, mediocre horror anthology. But instead Them bathes in the blood and pain of Black America. It uses the theme of racism as an inescapable phantom to justify ten episodes comprised mostly of sneering at Black people and putting them through debasement after brutality after humiliation. By the time comeuppance arrives for the oppressive white antagonists it feels worse than anti-climactic. It feels empty and opportunistic.

‘Them’ follows the story of Henry (Ashley Thomas) and Lucky Emory (Deborah Ayorinde), who move their family to East Compton in 1953. They have hopes of starting anew after a traumatic hate crime at their home in Jim Crow-era North Carolina. Their new house is in a neighborhood with an anti-African-American clause in its covenants that the law has recently rendered null. 

What happens next is hours of white neighbors glowering at this nice family who had the gall to come ruin their idyllic suburb with their mere existence. The tensions escalate in the way that we all already know they did in 1950s American suburbs. Passive aggression turns to violence. Slurs get hurled. Lawns get burned. 

Meanwhile, vengeful ghosts stalk the Emorys’ new house, driving them mad. And the ghosts are racist, too? One of them is a blackface minstrel. It’s not until the ninth hour of the series that we find out what that’s even about. 

It’s been longer than I can remember since I watched something that felt like it was outright cruel and rudderless in how it attempts to put its audience through the ringer. We watch horror to be uncomfortable together and then come back to reality to laugh it off. ‘Them’ wants to waterboard its audience.

Much ink has already been spilled over who this show is for, with “who” being a racially loaded word, and how it feels like trauma or degradation porn. I can’t speak for the Black community, which isn’t a monolith anyway, but I can say pretty confidently that this show is not for anyone who doesn’t want to watch ten 45-minute installments of white people viciously degrading Black people.

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Pablo Gallaga

Pablo Gallaga is a former video blogger and recapper for Television Without Pity (RIP). You can probably find him at an Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas. He will thwart your alien invasion by uploading a rudimentary computer virus to your mothership using a 1996 Apple Powerbook and no Wi-Fi.

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