PG Score: 7.75/10
Them: Covenant is available for streaming on Amazon Prime
The first installment of Amazon Prime’s newest original show wields its authentic style and absorbing performances with astounding force. More terrifying than the supernatural elements found in Them: Covenant is the unflinching depiction of the rampant, real-life horror that Black Americans suffered in the 1950s. Though cloaked in a different veil, these racial atrocities still occur today, making the series that much more relevant.
Billed as a limited anthology series, Them was green-lit for two seasons back in July 2018. Season 1 operates under the subtitle of Covenant and is helmed by newcomer Little Marvin, who is backed by Lena Waithe (The Chi and Queen & Slim ) as an executive producer. Taking place during The Great Migration, the plot follows a Black family as they relocate from North Carolina to the all-white neighborhood of Compton, California, where they are met with unspeakable racism. In addition to the wicked individuals right next door, the Emory family must also contend with the ethereal evil that threatens them in their new home.
The relentless racism the Emorys endure can be tough to stomach as no punches are pulled in the on-screen depravity. The pragmatic approach to the subject matter aligns with the message Creator Little Marvin is going for. It is imperative to note that while the violence is not constant, there is one particularly disturbing scene that has already elicited much controversy from critics and viewers alike. The segment certainly tests the limits of the TV-MA rating but accomplishes its objective of giving audiences a deeper understanding of the main characters.
Since most of the malevolence inflicted on the Emory family comes at the hands of the humans in their new community, the paranormal entities that torment them are used sparingly. This decision pays dividends as it adds weight to each encounter. While not outwardly grotesque, the undoubtedly frightening demons possess an aura that feels unique to the genre. This is no small feat as countless similarities between otherworldly beings have been rehashed in one form or another in numerous movies, TV shows, video games, and books. The scenes featuring these malicious spirits gradually unfold, which allows the terror to grow naturally and makes the scares especially impactful.
One of the biggest reasons Them: Covenant works as both a horror and a drama is the writing. Marvin has penned a script that cranks the tension up to a 10 in the opening frame and refuses to let off the gas until it reaches its satisfying conclusion. The dialogue is meaningful throughout and provides insight into each character‘s psyche. Also, it is full of social commentary regarding racism that unfortunately still applies today. The tone is consistently ominous and the looming sense of danger at every turn is bound to have viewers on the edge of their seats. The series intertwines the horror and dramatic aspects in a way that enables each genre to strengthen the other.
Both the protagonists and antagonists are well-developed and much of this can be credited to the captivating backstories that illuminate past traumas, sources of motivation, and behavioral shifts. Many times, origin stories seem like afterthoughts and/or filler in episodic productions, but that could not be further from the case here. Among the most powerful episodes are the two that are entirely flashbacks. They are well-placed and instead of detracting from the momentum the current story is building, they enhance it. Considering the amount of attention Them devotes to the characters and the damage they are subjected to/subject others to, quality writing and character/plot development are vital. Thankfully, it delivers on both fronts.
Another highlight is the show’s great pacing. It moves briskly but for the most part, still manages to thoroughly cover multiple narratives. The seamless transitions between time periods keep the plotline coherent and ensures the engaging material remains intact. There are no empty moments as every shot serves its purpose of elevating the drama, horror, or both. Marvin succeeds in generating compelling storytelling without dwelling at any juncture for too long.
A Few Weaknesses
Them maintains a steady course most of the way, but it is not without missteps. Arguably the most glaring are the few rushed secondary storylines, which stand out because they contain such potential. Half of the ten episodes are within the 30 to 40-minute range so the shortened runtimes are likely partially to blame for the undercooked portions. This also affects some of the supporting characters as they are deprived of more in-depth exploration. Lastly, a little more comic relief would have gone a long way towards injecting some levity into the ever-present, foreboding atmosphere. In Get Out, Jordan Peele proved that humor used in the right spots can be effective in even the darkest of horror tales. Given the similarities this series shares with Peele’s work, that is one area where Marvin could have benefited from following the horror mastermind’s lead.
Deborah Ayorinde is mesmerizing as Lucky Emory. She flawlessly fills the role and exhibits the many nuances to her complex character. The deep-seated trauma that regularly eats at Lucky is expressed through the gifted performer with stunning detail. She also captures her strength, compassion, and raw will to protect her own to a striking degree. Ayorinde wholly embodies the Emory matriarch and delivers an excellent performance.
She is joined by Ashley Thomas, who plays Lucky’s husband, Henry. Like his wife, he is plagued by a painful past. The lead actor communicates his character’s ongoing battle to control his rage in a significantly convincing manner. He conveys a large amount of emotion without having to say much, and the lines he does have are adeptly delivered.
The supporting cast of Them is packed with talent. Shahadi Wright Joseph and Melody Hurd play the Emory daughters, Ruby and Gracie, and both young actresses do an adequate job in their respective roles. Combined with her previous work in Jordan Peele’s Us, Joseph shows a knack for portraying characters in the horror genre. Liam McIntyre (best known for his portrayal of the titular character on the Starz series Spartacus) and Ryan Kwanten (most recognizable as Jason Stackhouse in HBO’s True Blood) both answer the call as a pair of semi-mysterious neighbors that come into play more in the later episodes. The standouts are Alison Pill as Betty Wendell, Jeremiah Birkett as Da Tap Dance Man, and Christopher Heyerdahl as The Black Hat Man. All three are superb and really help take the production to a new level.
A Powerful, Well-Executed Debut
Despite a few shortcomings, Little Marvin’s debut is largely a success as he skillfully blends unsettling horror with socially relevant drama. Reinforced by powerhouse performances, Them: Covenant makes for an enthralling binge.