Skip to main content

Digital Trends may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site. Why trust us?

The Crowded Room review: a series of miscalculations

Tom Holland stands in New York City in The Crowded Room.
The Crowded Room
“The Crowded Room is a psychological thriller that doesn't have much to offer when it comes to thrills or surprises.”
  • Tom Holland and Amanda Seyfried's engaging lead performances
  • Christopher Abbott's scene-stealing, late-season supporting turn
  • An infectious sense of empathy throughout
  • Too many filler episodes
  • Several painfully obvious twists
  • Multiple thinly drawn supporting characters

Throughout the first half of its 10-episode season, The Crowded Room does not have a story. It has a twist, which it drags out for nearly six hours. In doing so, the new Apple TV+ series leaves its two immensely capable leads, Amanda Seyfried and Tom Holland, stranded with nothing to do but be vessels for The Crowded Room’s endless exposition dumps. When it’s later revealed that not everything is as it seemed in the show’s first half, it’s hard not to realize in the same breath just how much more interesting The Crowded Room could have been if it had simpy played it straight from the very beginning.

Unfortunately, these kinds of miscalculations are present in all of The Crowded Room’s 10 episodes. Even when the series has reached some of its most moving and compelling moments — most of which occur in its final few installments — it dampens their impact with “twists” that not only come across as frustratingly hokey, but also seem to exist solely to justify The Crowded Room’s overlong 10-hour runtime. There’s an intriguing, well-acted series in The Crowded Room. The problem is that it’s buried under 6 hours’ worth of unnecessary filler.

Amanda Seyfried and Tom Holland sit across a table from each other in The Crowded Room.
Apple TV+

Loosely inspired by Daniel Keyes’ 1981 nonfiction novel The Minds of Billy Milligan, The Crowded Room picks up with its lead, Danny Sullivan (Holland), after he is arrested for participating in a public shooting that leaves three people injured. Following his arrest, Danny catches the attention of interrogator Rya Goodwin (Seyfried), who conducts a series of one-on-one interviews with him in the hopes of unearthing the truth behind the crime. The Crowded Room uses these interviews as a way into its numerous flashbacks, which gradually reveal exactly how Danny went from being a relatively sweet kid born and raised in upstate New York to a hostile shooter.

Along the way, The Crowded Room, which comes from A Beautiful Mind writer Avika Goldsman, introduces viewers to a handful of key figures in Danny’s life, including his stepfather Marlin, (Will Chase); his mother, Candy (Emmy Rossum); a free-spirited partier named Ariana (Sasha Lane), and his Israeli landlord, Yitzak (Lior Raz). In its early episodes, The Crowded Room primarily focuses on the time Danny spent living with the latter two characters. To say anything more here about their roles, though, would be to spoil many of the surprises that The Crowded Room spends a considerable amount of time trying to hold on to.

The problem is that many of The Crowded Room’s twists are painfully obvious from the moment the show begins. Even those who have no knowledge of the 1981 novel that served as the series’ inspiration will likely find themselves catching on quickly to the revelation that The Crowded Room essentially grounds the first and second halves of its season around. That, in turn, makes the show’s needlessly long runtime feel alternately confounding and irritating.

Amanda Seyfried stands near a green chalkboard in The Crowded Room.
Apple TV+

Once it’s done away with its initial façade, The Crowded Room picks up quite a bit in its second half, which adopts an increased focus on actors like Seyfried and Christopher Abbott, who shows up late in the series as Danny’s lawyer and makes one of the biggest impressions of any of its cast members. Seyfried, for her part, is given so little to do in The Crowded Room’s first five episodes that it is, at first, hard to understand why she agreed to star in the series, especially coming off her career-best turn in last year’s The Dropout.

When Rya is actually allowed to start driving the series’ narrative forward, it becomes easier to see why Seyfried was drawn to the role. Her work in the series’ final third, particularly her scenes with Abbott, Holland, and Rossum, just further cements Seyfried’s place as one of the most underrated and capable screen actresses working right now. Overall, The Crowded Room is often at its best when it is at its most empathetic, which is why Seyfried’s Rya, whose interest in Holland’s Danny extends far beyond her own professional curiosity, is so key to many of its best moments.

As for Holland himself, quite a lot of noise has been made about the effect his role here had on him. It’s clear from the moment The Crowded Room begins that the Spider-Man star fully threw himself into the splintered headspace of his character, however, The Crowded Room spends so much time trying to dance around the emotional realities of Danny’s life that it ends up wasting Holland. It’s only in the series’ final three episodes that the actor is finally able to portray all the aspects of Danny that likely made him an appealing character in the first place. Once he’s allowed to do so, it’s made blindingly clear just how much better The Crowded Room could have been if it had just been written as a four- or six-episode limited series.

Sasha Lane and Tom Holland sit on a bench together in The Crowded Room.
Apple TV+

Cutting down its number of episodes would have allowed The Crowded Room to excise some of its most trying installments, which include an episode-long excursion to London that might as well have been titled Filler. The show could have similarly lost a handful of late-season twists that are clearly meant to heighten its stakes and tension, but mostly come across as cheesy and hackneyed. While Rossum, Jason Isaacs, and Emma Laird do their best to breathe real life into some of The Crowded Room’s supporting figures, their performances suffer due to the show’s indecisive characterizations of their roles.

The same can be said for The Crowded Room itself, which suffers from an unevenness that is present in nearly every aspect of it. The show is, in a bit of a tragically ironic twist of fate, brought down by its own conflicting impulses. On the one hand, it’s a series that desperately wants to imbue its characters’ journeys with as much empathy and heart as it can. On the other, it’s a wannabe genre experiment that feels the need to tell its story in the most overcomplicated manner possible. Ultimately, the most interesting thing about The Crowded Room is just how resolutely it refuses to get out of its own way.

The first three episodes of The Crowded Room are now streaming on Apple TV+. New episodes premiere weekly. Digital Trends was given early access to all 10 of the series’ episodes.

Editors' Recommendations

Alex Welch
Alex Welch is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
Pearl review: a star is born (and is very, very bloody)
Mia Goth stares at the camera in the poster for Pearl.

Pearl is a candy-coated piece of rotten fruit. The film, which is director Ti West’s prequel to this year's X, trades in the desaturated look and 1970s seediness of its parent film for a lurid, Douglas Sirk-inspired aesthetic that seems, at first, to exist incongruently with its story of intense violence and horror. But much like its titular protagonist, whose youthful beauty and Southern lilt masks the monster within, there’s a poison lurking beneath Pearl’s vibrant colors and seemingly untarnished Depression-era America setting.

Set around 60 years before X, West’s new prequel does away with the por nstars, abandoned farms, and eerie old folks that made its predecessor’s horror influences clear and replaces them with poor farmers, charming film projectionists, and young women with big dreams. Despite those differences, Pearl still feels like a natural follow-up to X. The latter film, with its use of split screens and well-placed needle drops, offered a surprisingly dark rumination on the horror of old age. Pearl, meanwhile, explores the loss of innocence and, in specific, the often terrifying truths that remain after one’s dreams have been unceremoniously ripped away from them.

Read more
The Woman King review: a thrilling period epic
Viola Davis holds a torch in The Woman King.

The Woman King opens purposefully and violently. The film’s first sequence, which brings to life a brutal battle from its sudden beginning all the way to its somber end, is a master class in visual storytelling. Not only does it allow director Gina Prince-Bythewood to, once again, prove her worth as a capable action filmmaker, but it also introduces The Woman King’s central all-female army, sets up the film’s core conflict, and introduces nearly every important character that you’ll need to know for the two hours that follow it. The fact that The Woman King does all of this within the span of a few short minutes just makes its opening sequence all the more impressive.

The level of impressive craftsmanship in The Woman King’s memorably violent prologue is present throughout the entirety of its 135-minute runtime. For that reason, the film often feels like a throwback to an era that seems to reside farther in the past than it actually does, one when it was common for all the major Hollywood studios to regularly put out historical epics that were, if nothing else, reliably well-made and dramatically engaging.

Read more
Cobra Kai season 5 review: Crowded, but compelling, karate
William Zabka, Ralph Macchio, and Yuji Okumoto stand in track suits in a scene from Cobr Kai season 5.

In a crowded field of reboots and revivals, Cobra Kai has not only managed to stay alive over four seasons, but has thrived, earning a long list of accolades -- including an Emmy nomination -- ahead of its upcoming fifth season.

As with prior seasons, Cobra Kai season 5 mixes and matches the allegiances of the franchise's heroes and villains yet again while bringing back more familiar faces from past Karate Kid films. It's a formula that keeps working for the series no matter how many times it's repeated, and the show's entertaining fifth season continues that trend.

Read more