You have heard about the streaming wars, right? It has been going on for the past decade or so since streaming platforms started fighting with network TV as people were already switching from one small screen to another small screen. But then the pandemic happened, and streaming platforms started fighting amongst themselves by releasing the most amount of content. It didn’t matter if they were good or bad. They just wanted to convince people that their hard-earned money wasn’t going to waste. Since that was a flawed approach, streamers have been stopped dead in their tracks by the WGA strike, thereby forcing them to re-strategize. But, until any actual change happens, we still have to deal with substance-less stories that are being released just because they were in production and since the streaming platforms don’t want to lose their loyal viewers. So, let’s talk about The Crowded Room.
Created by Akiva Goldsman, The Crowded Room is “inspired” by Daniel Keyes’ The Minds of Billy Milligan, and this is kind of where my problems with the miniseries start, but we’ll come to them in a bit. The narrative is set in the late ’70s and follows Danny Sullivan, who tries to gun down a man at the Rockefeller Center. When he apparently fails, his friend, Ariana, takes the gun from him and goes after their target. Ariana is nowhere to be found. So, Danny is arrested and jailed. Since criminal psychology professor Rya Goodwin is looking into various kinds of psychopaths, she’s brought into the picture by Detective Matty Dunne. And through a series of interviews between Rya and Danny, his whole life story is unpacked, as their primary goal is to pinpoint the reason behind the unsuccessful shooting and hopefully prove that Danny is innocent.
Without beating around the bush, because the showrunners have already cited Billy Milligan’s story as an “inspiration” and the sequel to that book (The Milligan Wars) is allegedly tied to this miniseries’ release, The Crowded Room is about dissociative identity disorder (DID). For the sake of spoilers and to maintain the “mystery” element of the miniseries, I won’t reveal which characters are figments of Danny’s imagination and which of them are not. I will say, though, that the level of emphasis and the kind of build-up that’s dedicated to the eventual reveal are incredibly flat. It feels like the writers were on two minds. On the one hand, they wanted to surprise everyone, and on the other hand, they wanted viewers to feel the weight of having multiple personalities stored in Danny’s psyche. They couldn’t find the right balance, and the end product just felt awkward. It’s hilarious that they do it twice, and both of those twists have no emotional impact whatsoever.
The flimsy payoff also boils down to the overall pacing and running time of The Crowded Room. As mentioned earlier, as well as in the title, every story doesn’t need to be 8–10 hours long. David Fincher (Fight Club), Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island), M. Night Shyamalan (Split), Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho), Gregory Hoblit (Primal Fear), James Mangold (Identity), Fazil (Manichitrathazhu), or even Todd Phillips (Joker) weren’t idiots for telling stories about dissociative identity disorder through films. They knew about the limits and potential of using a mental health issue in the mystery genre, and with the exception of Todd, none of them glorified DID. They simply dropped the twist, dwelt a little on it, and then allowed us to think about it. Goldsman and his team, for some reason, thought that they should not only take the dullest route to the twist but also explain DID so much that it starts to sound like a superpower. As far as I can remember, Prakash Kovelamudi and Kanika Dhillon did something similar with the awful Judgementall Hai Kya. So, the miniseries is clearly in good company.
That said, the execution of the plot twists isn’t The Crowded Room’s biggest problem. It’s what the miniseries is trying to say about Danny Sullivan and dissociative identity disorder where things get really problematic. For starters, much like last week’s School of Lies, the showrunners correlate queerness with sexual abuse. I admit that I’m not well-versed in this topic. I understand that, regardless of one’s sexual orientation or gender, people become victims of abuse. But when you aren’t explicitly saying or showing that a person doesn’t have to be queer for a reason, especially as a response to trauma, and they are simply born that way, it feels off. Then there’s the issue with the ethnicities that Danny assumes. Edward Norton’s alternate identity was played by Brad Pitt. James McAvoy did all the alternate identities on his own. But, in this miniseries, different actors play Danny’s alternate identities, and then Tom cosplays them. Things are tolerable as long as Holland (a White, cis-het man) pretends to be another White man. However, when he switches between ethnicities without a hint of irony, it seems insensitive. It was barely forgivable when Oscar Isaac did it in a superhero show like Moon Knight. So, you can’t expect any leniency when you want to be seen as a serious drama.
Coming to the cherry picking, Danny’s multiple identities and his backstory are quite similar to that of Billy Milligan’s, i.e., the inspiration for The Crowded Room. However, they’ve completely erased the fact that Billy (or one of his identities) was guilty of raping three women at Ohio State University. What’s the reason behind this omission? Because the showrunners want to create sympathy for Danny Sullivan and they don’t want to make it look like a criminal psychologist (Rya) and a lawyer (Stan) are trying to prove that an objectively bad human being is actually innocent. Then what’s the point of saying that you were inspired by Billy Milligan’s case? I simply don’t know. The showrunners should’ve cut all ties with the books and the real-life criminal and presented Danny and his multiple identities as original characters. That wouldn’t have solved all the issues, but it would’ve probably made the miniseries a little more watchable. The other thing that would’ve made things a little more bearable was the casting of Christopher Abbott as Danny Sullivan. What can I say? The guy has the skills to pull it off, and Tom Holland just isn’t there yet. Everyone in the miniseries, including the usually amazing Amanda Seyfried, is fine. The production design, cinematography, sound design, editing, etc., are all fine. Nothing sticks out like a sore thumb. I can’t consider it a real plus point because that’s the bare minimum that’s expected from high-budget productions like this.
In conclusion, The Crowded Room is a very bad miniseries, and I don’t recommend dedicating the limited amount of time you have in your life to it. In fact, stop watching shows altogether. Watch more movies. Streaming platforms and production houses should get the message that we don’t want to spend hours on wafer-thin stories. I mean, in 2023 alone, I have watched 27 stories that have been told in an episodic fashion, and only 8 of them have managed to justify using the serialized format. Does that sound like a good ratio to you? No, because it’s not. So, with the intention of sounding repetitive, make more movies because even a bad 3-hour movie is better than a bad 10-hour show. With that said, what you’ve read is just my opinion about The Crowded Room. If you are a Tom Holland fan or if you love any of the other artists in the show, go ahead and watch it, form your own opinion, and let us know what you think about it.