‘The Crowded Room’: Tom Holland series white-washes a true, more interesting case

The false leads and acts of misdirection grow tiresome on Apple TV+ show.

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Tom Holland (“Spider-Man: No Way Home”) plays a man whose troubles trace back to his childhood in “The Crowded Room.”

Apple TV+

In the haunting and quite beautiful opening credits sequence for the 10-episode Apple TV+ psychological thriller series “The Crowded Room,” we’re told the show is inspired by Daniel Keyes’ “The Minds of Billy Milligan,” a notable non-fiction novel from 1981. The real-life Milligan’s story was also told in a three-part Netflix documentary series in 2021, but even telling you the title of that series would be revealing certain details Apple TV+ has asked critics not to divulge, so I’ll leave it to you to decide if you want to Google or Bing the case.

Whether you’re well-versed in the source material or you enter “The Crowded Room” utterly unaware of its origins, my guess is the closely held secrets in this well-intentioned and expertly acted but heavy-handed and overlong melodrama will be painfully clear long before the putatively stunning plot reveals.

Even with the esteemed Akiva Goldsman (best adapted screenplay Oscar winner for “A Beautiful Mind”) as showrunner and a cast led by Tom Holland and Amanda Seyfried delivering impactful performances, the false leads and acts of misdirection grow tiresome, the use of certain visual techniques to depict a main character’s torment is over-the-top, and the toning down of the magnitude of crimes committed by the real-life inspiration for the main character is borderline insulting to the victims and their families.

‘The Crowded Room’

Untitled

A 10-episode series available now on Apple TV+.

In a well-staged opening sequence set in the Manhattan of 1979 (production values are top-notch throughout), Holland’s Danny Sullivan and his friend Ariana (Sasha Lane) are in frantic pursuit of an unseen stranger they intend to murder — but Danny is unable to literally pull the trigger, and Ariana can’t complete the job. Soon thereafter, Danny is arrested, and is placed in a room with Rya (Amanda Seyfried), an interrogator who attempts to get to the bottom of Danny’s story.

In flashback sequences, we see Danny’s troubled home life, with a hardworking and overwhelmed mother Candy (Emmy Rossum, doing heartbreakingly effective work even though she’s far too young to be playing Holland’s mother), who is in denial about the extent of the abuse caused by Danny’s vile stepfather Marlin (Will Chase). We’re also introduced to a number of key characters in Danny’s life, including his best friends Mike (Sam Vartholomeos) and Jonny (Levon Hawke), as well as a mysterious and intimidating immigrant named Yitzhak (Lior Raz) who becomes Danny’s landlord.

With events moving at a glacial pace, “The Crowded Room” further slows things down by delving into Rya’s personal life, I guess to provide some insight into why she chose her particular career path. It’s an unnecessary distraction.

Show creator Goldsman wants to make it clear, crystal clear, that Danny has been failed by everyone in his life since he was a child, and there but for the grace of God, etc., etc., and while this of course is a valid point, we don’t need to hear it over and over and over. The real-life case that inspired “The Crowded Room” is far more complex and thought-provoking and intriguing than this white-washed, nearly sentimental take.

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