It’s all about the trauma these days. After all, we suffered through 4 years of some of the worst trauma America has experienced since the Civil War. Unfortunately, the banishment of the former king has done little to mitigate the remaining pressures.
Trauma takes many forms in 2021. It’s in news form, essay form, and Twitter threads. In pop culture, creators are mining the depths of trauma both personal and historical in a variety of ways — documenting the testimonials of real-life victims in shocking detail; weaving harrowing experiences into fictional characters’ narratives.
The new Amazon series Them, created by Little Marvin (Lena Waithe is one of the executive producers), has been billed as an anthology that “explores terror in America.” Is there much difference between terror and trauma?
Unlikely and definitely not in the case of THEM, as the first season centers the Emorys, a Black family moving from rural North Carolina to the suburbs of East Compton, Calif., in 1953, back when East Compton was virtually all white, and the second great migration continued from the Jim Crow South to so-called friendlier climes.
Even if you hadn’t already seen the much-talked-about trailer, it would be easy enough to guess what said terror might entail based on that short description alone: Good ol’, mid-20th century American racism. (With a brief detour to the 19th century in a later episode.)
Them is drowning in terror and trauma, and that trauma and terror are so horrific, several episodes begin with content warnings of graphic violence. I’m not one who believes every piece of art depicting awful events needs such disclosure, but in this case, the producers made the correct choice; there are scenes involving Black pain and suffering so mortifying, I can imagine many viewers not being able to finish watching it.
The attention to the details of this suffering is chilling not necessarily because of what is depicted — there’s a time and place for such explicitness in the right creative hands — but because it’s depicted in service of a cynical mode of storytelling. Each of the Emorys are haunted by a demon corresponding to their individual life experiences, and through these spirits, one can see the makings of a potentially more interesting character study than what we’re given — a story using supernatural elements to tap into trauma within Black families with the richness and sharpness of a movie like Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou or, more recently, His House, the captivating haunted house tale about a South Sudanese refugee couple living in the U.K.
Instead it borrows from the playbook of last year’s unwieldly and exploitative Antebellum, and shows like Westworld and Lovecraft Country, which favor slick convolution over coherent narrative choices. There are So! Many! Ideas! And! Tones! being mashed up here, and to little effect. At one point the show diverts to a baffling hostage-in-a-bunker plotline for reasons that remain unclear.
When the full trailer for Them dropped last month, the Twitter timeline was alit with commentary about how the show’s themes and aesthetic seemed to be biting from Jordan Peele. Superficial similarities aside — the titles Us vs.Them; the casting of Shahadi Wright Joseph in both projects — such conclusions gloss over a few realities, such as the fact that Peele himself has always been vocal about the many films that inspired his own work.
These genres fundamentally build upon and play with these familiar elements but it doesn’t make for a bad or boring teleplay. There’s as much scary horror stuff of the Stephen King variety in Them as there is Peele’s influence and most of it is downright attention-grabbing and hair-raising. I liked it, then again I do like a touch of the supernatural, sprinkled with a dab of horror. I particularly like it when it’s used to advance the story, as it is here.
For some, THEM may change their way of thinking about race. I know it made me take a long look at myself, as well as wonder about those confused feelings of my wonder years. I loved this show and binged it over two days, and I expect you will too unless of course, you are a white supremacist (read dedicated Trumpist), in which case you will be cheering the antagonists and loving the show but for very different reasons.