Here’s a horror story: You have an idea for a TV show. It’s a really clever idea, one that’s never quite been done on television before. Everyone you tell about it couldn’t sound more excited. But ideas don’t turn into finished series overnight, and the development process takes so long, another show with the exact same idea premieres before yours gets the chance. Worse, the other show is a better version of that idea than what you made. So now you not only appear to be copying them, but not doing it well.
This nightmare scenario plays out for two different new shows this week. One is the TBS comedy Chad, where SNL alum Nasim Pedrad plays an awkward teenage boy. First developed at Fox five years ago, it’s been stuck in limbo for so long that Hulu’s Pen15 has already managed to release two terrific seasons with its adult creators portraying themselves as adolescents. The other is Amazon Prime Video’s Them: Covenant, a horror anthology about a black family in the Fifties moving into an all-white neighborhood, where their racist neighbors may be a greater threat than the supernatural monsters lurking in the basement. Ordered to series nearly three years ago, it is debuting seven months after HBO’s Lovecraft Country told its own tale of black pioneers moving into a haunted house.
Chad would have many problems of its own even if it had beat Pen15 to market. It’s an excruciating watch, with zero empathy for its socially inappropriate title character. (Pen15 has plenty of mortifying moments of its own, but its clear affection for its heroines makes those bearable in a way that Chad‘s contempt for Chad does not.) Them: Covenant, on the other hand, has a lot of promising things going for it, including strong lead performances and unnerving atmosphere in every scene. But it’s hard not to notice that the show spends 10 episodes dragging out a nearly identical story to what Lovecraft efficiently told in one. And after a while, the new show’s individual strengths crumble under the weight of its sheer size.
Created by Little Marvin, primarily directed by Nelson Cragg, and produced by Lena Waithe, Covenant(*) opens with a nightmarish prologue at the North Carolina country home of Livia “Lucky” Emory (Deborah Ayorinde) and her World War II veteran husband Henry (Ashley Thomas). After a family tragedy makes living there untenable, they join in on the Great Migration of African American families from the rural South to the rest of the country. Henry has landed a job as an engineer with an airplane manufacturer, so he packs up Lucky and daughters Ruby (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Gracie (Melody Hurd) for the drive to Los Angeles, where they’ve acquired a pretty little ranch house in Compton.
(*) A second season has already been ordered, and the plan is similar to American Horror Story, where the cast, premise, and title change each year.
That Compton would in time become predominantly African-American is part of the tension Marvin and his collaborators are playing with throughout the season. Lucky and Henry move in right across the street from neighborhood queen bee Betty (Alison Pill), who decides she has to run this unwanted element out of town immediately, or risk her racially-pure paradise being overrun by people who look more like Lucky than like her.
“They always come from someplace worse,” Betty explains to her fellow housewives. “Which means they really want to be here. And if they really want to be here, getting them out won’t be easy. We’ll have to make this place worse.”
The threats against the Emory family exist on two levels. First, there are the extremely human hostilities, from the micro-aggressions Henry endures as the first black man in his department (in an early episode, he hides in a men’s room stall and jams paper towels into his mouth so he can scream in frustration without anyone hearing him) to the increasingly brazen campaign of terror that Betty and her coven wage against them. At the same time, each member of the family is haunted by a different ghost hoping to at minimum drive them mad, and preferably get them killed. The latter group provides a lot of jump scares, and plays cleverly on various bits of racist iconography, like Henry’s specter wearing blackface. But the supernatural monsters often feel disconnected from one another, as if Marvin had lots of different ideas about our country’s shameful history of racial atrocities, and wanted to include as many as possible without worrying about how they fit together. If the goal was to illustrate that America is so fundamentally racist that of course many different kinds of ghosts would be attacking the Emorys at once, it never quite comes across in the material, which undercuts the terrors they bring.
Covenant is much more potent in depicting the all-too-human monsters surrounding the family. Pill couldn’t be more perfectly cast as Betty, whose creepy, unwavering smile looks like it could cut glass. And the unrelenting fire behind the performances of Ayorinde and Thomas burns even hotter whenever they’re dealing with ignorant bullies who find their very existence offensive.
But the slow and steady drip-drip of incident does the show no favors. A fairly static horror situation can be elongated over a whole season, but it’s tough to maintain the tension for that amount of time. (The Haunting of Hill House mostly pulled it off, for instance, while The Haunting of Bly Manor felt more sluggish by the end.) The season devotes two separate episodes to backstory, and takes a series of big digressions with Betty that seem to have much less to do with her animosity towards the Emorys than a way to fill time and give Pill something to do once the plot otherwise evolves beyond that character.
There’s so much television out there now, with so many people subscribing to only one or two services at a time, that a lot of people who stream Them: Covenant won’t have seen, or even heard of, Lovecraft Country. And the intersection of people like Betty and creatures that go bump in the night should be fertile enough ground to support at least two shows. But even if Lovecraft hadn’t covered this territory in far brisker and scarier fashion, you’d be able to tell that, as Lucky puts it, “There’s something wrong with this place.”