The Crowded Room Uses DID as Prestige Fodder—and We Can Finally Talk About It

TV Features The Crowded Room
The Crowded Room Uses DID as Prestige Fodder—and We Can Finally Talk About It

The ableism in America’s care, medical, and judicial systems, which have barely improved over its few hundred years of operation, is staggering. As is demonstrated by a prosecutor in Apple TV+’s The Crowded Room—a fictionalized story inspired by the life of Billy Mulligan, the first defendant in America acquitted because of a Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)—courts are more likely to see an insanity plea as a desperate attempt for conniving criminals to get a more lenient sentence, rather than acknowledge that the chemical balance of a defendant’s brain left them with less control than others over how they behave. Such judgements are probably, in part, an act of denial; it would involve acknowledging that society’s treatment of unwell people is as culpable as the perpetrator for the crime they committed.

But despite good intentions trying to correct such prejudices, film and television hasn’t had the best track record with portraying mental illness, especially dissociative disorders. The opportunity to play a character so rich in trauma can be tantalizing to actors: it’s flashy, attention grabbing, and involves a lot of Capital-A Acting. Their eagerness to show how capable they are of doing lots of different performances within one character is probably why we’ve not seen many portrayals of DID that don’t feel at least a little bit exploitative. 

But while The Crowded Room fares better than its predecessors (being objectively less thrill-seeking than Primal Fear or Split), audiences expecting a nuanced take on a difficult condition will likely be disappointed. Tom Holland stars as Danny Sullivan, who on the orders of his strung-out housemates, opens fire on a man in broad daylight in Rockefeller Center. His stretches of memory loss complicate the extensive interrogations he finds himself in with psychiatrist Rya Goodwin (Amanda Seyfried), but bit by bit they manage to sketch out a young life of neglect and repression. But the 10-episode series is both too careful and too confused: a resistance to tackle its subject matter in all its complexity is compounded by structural choices that will likely disengage viewers before the story fully gets going.

Tom Holland is now doing what must be one of the most demoralising press tours in recent memory. The Crowded Room was slated in initial reviews written by critics infuriated that they could not discuss the premise of the show thanks to punitive spoiler embargos. If you remember when The Crowded Room was announced, and heard what the premise was, the inspiration behind the story, and what was intriguing about the part Holland was set to play, you might be confused watching the first half of the show. 

Only now has The Crowded Room, having aired its sixth episode, confirmed what it’s about, but by now all potential buzz has dissipated and the whole enterprise is well and truly botched. Tom Holland must keep addressing the poor critical reaction, genuinely convinced that the high audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes means anything other than his stans flocking to a website where they account for the vast majority of the people voting on the show. It’s not a fate I’d wish on any man, but it still doesn’t mean his show is any good.

For reasons that are confounding, The Crowded Room tries to play the tension of what Danny is suffering from for a long time, not revealing or confirming what he’s been going through until five episodes have elapsed. The first half spins out a mystery that has no tension if you are familiar with the premise, and immerses us in character drama that omits the most compelling pieces of information. The Crowded Room seemingly is aimed at a target audience who have never heard of The Crowded Room—not an inherent misstep from creator Akiva Goldsman, but frustrating when Apple TV+ have implored critics to not reveal any of the show’s plot points (which include the premise of the show that they themselves shared!). It’s even more annoying when, from Episode 6 onwards, a perspective shift gives the show an injection of dramatic focus that jumpstarts our engagement, despite having only five episodes to fully enjoy it. 

Holland’s involvement is paramount here. After playing Spider-Man uninterrupted for half a decade, the young British actor is clearly looking for something dramatic and challenging to sink his teeth into, and by all accounts he’s been genuinely affected by Danny’s traumatic story. (It is worth noting that while Danny’s life bears resemblance to Billy Mulligan’s, key derivations have been made—most notably in the crimes they’re tried for. Mulligan was arrested for serial rape; Danny attacks two men who have already been violent to him.) 

But The Crowded Room suffers with Holland in the lead; he’s far too mannered, timid, and inexpressive to convey the full extent of Danny’s experience. Too often does he try to show the character’s inner torment with the same tight-lipped, wide eyed stare, and rarely do we get a sense that Holland isn’t trying very hard to bring Danny’s mental affliction to light. At nearly every instance, we see a very famous young actor visibly pushing his dramatic talents to their very limit. It’s most blatant in his scenes with the very capable Siegfried, and equally visible when he shares the screen with Christopher Abbott as his defense lawyer and Sasha Lane as his mercurial and flighty close friend, Ariana.

Performance and structural issues aside, the biggest slight against The Crowded Room is in its safeness. The procedural moves at an unchallenging pace, never pushing our understanding of Danny’s condition or trauma, and is content borrowing tricks from court drama to keep us engaged. Meager efforts are made to color the bigotry of 1970s New York, but it takes a brief testimony from a queer witness for us to realize the show would benefit from looking at how society’s mistreatment of the mentally ill intersects with racism, or how queer perspectives offer a more empathetic look at identity than heteronormative hegemony. 

But The Crowded Room would much rather make feeble attempts to visualize the inside of Danny’s mind, where his various identities war for control—all things that should be telegraphed solely with Holland’s performance. It’s not solely Holland’s fault; the conventions that make up The Crowded Room’s narrative language simply do not allow for a complex, transformative performance that mines new empathetic depths. It may not reek of exploitation, but The Crowded Room’s themes of trauma and identity disorder deserve a better treatment than this.

Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin