This is a tricky one. The Crowded Room is one of those “inspired by” tales that plays just enough with the reality of the non-fiction novel on which it’s based — The Minds of Billy Milligan — that it kind of muddles the point. The novel, written by Flowers of Algernon author, Daniel Keys, recounts the case of Billy Milligan, who was the first defendant in US history to be acquitted of a crime based on a dissociative identity disorder defense. In other words, he didn’t do it, one of his other personalities did it. The series takes this as its basis, but also interjects enough action and unreality into things that it starts to feel at times more like the movie Split than it does a true study of DID and legal history that maybe a shorter, more focused series could have leaned into.
I appreciate the work Tom Holland had to do in this series. Asking a dude to play a character with split personality disorder is essentially asking him to constantly play several distinct characters — sometimes all in one scene. I imagine it’s tough on the constitution. In fact, I recall reading something somewhere that Holland had to take some time off after filming the series because it mentally exhausted him. Understood. The thing is, the show kind of plays with the whole multiple personality thing in a way that is a little too cute. Like they’re hiding the ball on the whole all-these-characters-are-actually-the-same-dude thing, but also not really hiding it. It’s like looking at Clark Kent and being like, “Bro, we all know you’re Superman. Oh.., we’re all still pretending it’s not him, huh? Ok, then.” And because of the visual medium, television, we are shown the various versions of Holland’s Danny Sullivan as different actors. All the while ignoring the fact the show is very obviously called The Crowded Room (not a subtle nod to Sullivan’s head) and the fact we’re aware of the source material. So my broken TV brain is thinking perhaps these are not just a television tricks and that perhaps Danny is somehow magically manifesting these characters and morphing into them. Because sci-fi and magical prestige content has just inclined me to believe this is how life works. But, alas, no. It’s just exactly what it appears to be. Which, again, disappoints just because we’ve been conditioned to want and need that elevated twist.
So, we are treated to this very slow-rolling reveal. A reveal that all these characters that surround Danny are, in fact, just Danny. All of them. It’s done in that way where we revisit a scene we’ve already seen, but now with the veil pulled back and Holland plopped in there in place of the alt personality/character we originally watched. The thing is, Holland — despite playing Spider-Man — is not a big fella. Yet one of his alts is this dude who just absolutely wrecks people. Like can take on a gang of larger dudes and absolutely flatten them. And I understand this is unreality, but it really stretches credulity. All of this is uncovered after Danny is arrested for an attempted murder in the middle of Rockefeller Center. A scene we see him participate in with his friend, Ariana (Sasha Lane), as she — not he — wildly fires a gun at an unknown male target amongst a crowd of tourists. This whole scene already shows the cracks in the effort to try to blind the audience to the fact Danny and Ariana are maybe the same person — which they know they’ll have to reveal later. We’re pretty heavily tipped off to the fact of who the target shooting is, and the whole arrest of Danny in the situation comes off as confusing if, in fact, this other suspect, Ariana, was actually involved. It’s the writers smudging things enough to obfuscate what’s actually happening, but not enough to make a whole lot of sense. We know who is being shot at, but they act like it’s a mystery. It’s odd.
As part of his arrest, Danny is visited by psychiatry professor, Rya Goodwin (Amanda Seyfried), who is interested in his case because of her DID research and her struggle to publish on the subject. So we’ve set up the whole tension of whether her meetings with Danny are to help him, or further her career by proving what at the time was a controversial and generally unbelieved diagnosis. All of these stories, then, are recounted in sessions with Rya. As she slowly starts to genuinely care about Danny’s plight, and over time turns into an advocate for him with his attorney in the case. Which also just happens to help her career if they can argue DID and win in court. Win-win. The issue here is the pacing. This is a ten-episode series that really takes its time getting to the point. It tells the story inhabiting the various personalities, and then rewinds the same tale with Danny. And jumps back and forth in time. While also showing his time in prison. And Rya’s struggle to get his lawyer and her family and boss to believe in her belief. It’s a narrative that bends and folds itself back on itself. Which, when viewed, just comes off as repetitive. Combine that with the often quiet, heaviness of the narrative and it becomes a slog at times. Eight episodes. That would have probably been sufficient.
That all said, the acting is solid across the board. Seyfried always looks like she’s been crying and is convincing as a put-upon academic. Holland does a great scared rabbit look, although, as mentioned, it’s hard to take him seriously as a tough guy. Also, there’s no split personality on earth that somehow gives you amazing, black belt Krav Maga skills out of thin air. Skills you’ve never trained for, but somehow gives you the ability to clean the clock of hardened criminals three times your size. Tom Holland may be a lot of things, but intimidating is not one of them. They do try to cut some of the heaviness with Christopher Abbott as the almost comically overburdened public defender, but even his charismatic performance can’t quite save the series from sinking under its own weight. Ultimately, they have a great cast here, and a pretty compelling idea, but it really needed someone to come in and streamline the narrative and create something tighter and maybe even a little more linear that would have served the story better. We have a lot of options for content out there, and sometimes when things feel more like work than entertainment, it just doesn’t seem worth it. No matter the promise.