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'Them: Covenant' review: 'Jordan Peele-lite' horror anthology goes too far

Melody Hurd and Deborah Ayorinde in Amazon Prime

Melody Hurd and Deborah Ayorinde in Amazon Prime Video's Season 1 of "Them." Credit: Amazon Prime Video

SERIES "Them: Covenant"

WHERE Streaming on Amazon Prime Video

WHAT IT'S ABOUT In the first season of this Amazon Prime horror anthology series, subtitled "Them: Covenant," a Black family moves from North Carolina to Compton, California, in 1953, during the Second Great Migration of Black southerners to other parts of the country.

In Compton, they are the first Black family on their block, where they face horrific racist abuse from their all-white neighbors and the malevolence of supernatural forces that have taken hold in their new home.

The series is created by Little Marvin, executive produced by Lena Waithe ("The Chi") and stars Deborah Ayorinde, Ashley Thomas, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Melody Hurd as the Emory family at the center of the 10-episode season.

MY SAY There is a scene in the fifth episode of "Them: Covenant" that is so profoundly gut-wrenching, so difficult to endure, that it cannot even be described here. Its presence in the series evokes a litmus test that its makers fail to pass: it is possible to depict even the most heinously awful experience conceivable if a dramatic work truly earns the right to do that.

But, at least through a viewing of the first five episodes of this first season, the series never meets that bar.

"Them: Covenant" endeavors to explore some of the darkest currents that are fundamental to the story of American suburbanization, such as the immense toll of race-restricted housing covenants and the sheer scope of the racist abuse that faced so many of the first Black families to move into all-white neighborhoods.

It does so through a lens that might best be described as Jordan Peele-lite, however. The stylistic parallels to "Get Out" and "Us" are evident early and often, with a key difference: Those movies effectively explored similar ideas centered on endemic American racism while also managing to be entertaining, without relying on sequences of endless brutality and debasement.

"Them: Covenant" is stuck in an uncomfortable middle ground. It is a work of socially conscious genre storytelling that seems to be fighting for a place on viewers' long list of binge-worthy television, while also engaging in some of the most utterly punishing and horrific scenes of verbal and physical racist violence one could possibly imagine.

The acting is first-rate across the board, with Deborah Ayorinde achieving a particularly resonant mix of strength and utter devastation as the Emory matriarch Livia. These actors are simply too good to be subject to horror staples such as demons charging at them in a dark basement, a wealth of jump scares and other tropes that trivialize the seriousness of their performances.

This is a show that simultaneously offers an unvarnished portrayal of the worst of humanity and an array of genre standards presented without much conviction and inspiration. The potential for a resonant depiction of the all-too-common, real world nightmare experienced by the Emory family is lost in a sea of cliches.

BOTTOM LINE The makers of "Them: Covenant" ask their audience to endure scenes of horrific abuse that are unearned by their broader framework.

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