'Chambers': TV Review

Finally gets interesting as the closing credits roll.
4/26/2019

Netflix's new supernatural thriller featuring Uma Thurman and Tony Goldwyn is full of big, crazy ideas without the attention span to do any of them justice.

Nothing is more Peak TV than watching 10 episodes of a bad-to-mediocre show, getting to the last 30 seconds of the finale and going, "Crap. Now I'm kinda curious what happens next."

Dear readers, I give you Netflix's Chambers, which is either a 90-minute movie padded out over 10 episodes or a five-season run of an in-depth series brutally hacked down to 10 episodes. I'm not sure which. Something isn't right with this melange of horror, metaphysical craziness and Southwestern mysticism, except for the fleeting and frustrating moments when things actually come together in ways that blend high-concept silliness with big ideas. Would that there were more of those and that you didn't have to wade through so much to get to them.

Created by Leah Rachel, Chambers is the story of Sasha Yazzie (Sivan Alyra Rose), an Arizona high school student whose motivation extends mostly to losing her virginity to hunky track star TJ (Griffin Powell-Arcand). She chooses to do it on a dark and stormy night and, amid foreplay, Sasha has a heart attack and nearly dies. The only thing that saves her is a transplant from Becky Lefevre (Lilliya Reid), a troubled teen who dies under tragic and confusing circumstances.

A few months later, now boasting a striking scar stretching across her chest, Sasha is recovering when Becky's parents Ben (Tony Goldwyn) and Nancy (Uma Thurman) reach out. See, Sasha and her uncle Frank (Marcus LaVoi) live a respectable and loving, but decidedly blue-collar life. The Lefevres are rich as heck. They're also struggling with their grief and they see a connection to Becky's organ recipient as a chance to keep Becky alive. Now, does that mean a chance to keep Becky alive literally or just a chance to keep her memory alive? Well, that's a good question. Soon the Lefevres are gifting Sasha with a scholarship to a prestigious private school and Becky's used Prius.

This may shock you, but the seemingly perfect life the Lefevres live, complete with an astonishing house with meditation rooms and panoramic desert views and whatnot, is not so perfect. And the seemingly perfect school that Sasha is about to be initiated into, complete with a "nap room" and free laptops and personally assigned life coaches (including Michael Stahl-David's Coach Jones), is not so perfect. And the weird-ass religious cult that the Lefevres are part of, featuring Lili Taylor as an eerie spiritual leader? Well, that's every bit as weird-ass as it appears.

Oh, and that heart that Sasha received? It's evil. Or it's causing Sasha to have evil feelings and do evil things. Is there more to Becky and her death than meets the eye? Of course! And does it relate to Becky's drug-addicted twin brother Elliott (Nicholas Galitzine) or the creepy girl next door (Lilli Kay's Penelope) or Becky's Stepford best friend (Sarah Mezzanotte's Marnie)? Dunno. Tune in or whatever!

The great thing about Chambers is that other than the climactic revelations of the season finale, which traverses from cuckoo to cuckoo-bananas to ever-so-briefly-enticing in under 45 minutes, it's effectively unspoilable. Every episode, usually once or twice per episode, there's a twist or turn that makes you go, "Wait. That's what this show thinks it's about?" From psychoanalytic mumbo-jumbo to New Age mumbo-jumbo to rudimentary biological mumbo-jumbo to Native American mystical mumbo-jumbo, Chambers is a thematic dartboard of ideas that the writers are taking aim at like a drunk bar patron.

Some of the ideas are worthwhile and speak to a very real human instinct to reach out for answers in times of grief and misery. It's the rare person who is able to latch onto one source of solace and maintain focus there in perpetuity. It's bad timing or an unavoidable consequence of Netflix's own pu-pu platter programming approach that as reasonable as it is to combine supernatural and horror trappings with undercurrents of addiction, recovery and self-repair — Freud would say that a common death instinct drives and unifies them — Chambers invariably plays like a less convincing, less committed and far less scary version of Netflix's own The Haunting of Hill House.

And Chambers isn't very scary. In 10 episodes, I got one good, marrow-chilling jolt, which came in the eighth episode, one of two helmed by Ti West. There are a few moments of audacious grossness, capturing very visceral and primal imagery, with a melding of body horror and disorienting nightmarishness. Throughout, Chambers looks spectacular, with director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon setting a template that uses the sparse New Mexico locations to haunting effect, whether capturing the loneliness of a remote desert, the moodiness of a storm-pregnant sky or, in a later episode from Emmy-winning cinematographer Dana Gonzalez, a simple bowl of Cookie Crisp in a way that feels threatening. Even in the mind-bendingly ludicrous finale, the story is kept eye-poppingly watchable by director Lucy Tcherniak.

I definitely don't want to tell Chambers, much less any show with a wide variety of curiosities, to pick a lane — just to have more awareness of which of its lanes represents something new and notable and to do justice to its chosen lanes. I would argue that the exploration of Native American tribal superstitions in the modern world, the admirable attempt to correct a Hollywood tradition of inscrutable medicine men and slow-talking shamans, is where Chambers is at its most provocative, boosted by a confident use of locations and smart casting.

Rose, a newcomer of Native American and Puerto Rican heritage, is a fine and appropriately unstudied pick for the lead role. She has an uncomfortable physicality that I'd guess is part choice and part inexperience and is entirely fitting. Most of what she's asked to play is "confusion," and the scripts probably helped there. I can imagine her walking to a director clutching pages and going, "What's my motivation?" and them responding, "Exactly." Among other lesser-known actors, LaVoi's fierce, unfamiliar charisma is well utilized, while I wished that the very likable Kyanna Simone Simpson, as Sasha's best friend, had a character who made a lick of sense.

The series makes good use of Goldwyn's enigmatic serenity, a reminder of how before he became America's presidential boyfriend on Scandal, his aquiline WASPishness best served to cover a murky uncertainty. It's the same with Taylor and a Mona Lisa smile that could either represent neighborly friendliness or tight-lipped simmering. That Thurman's performance is all over the place reflects a character losing control more than an actress losing control.

By the time I got to the 10th episode, I was mostly sticking with Chambers to get answers and I was finding it a frustrating journey right up until the closing credits left me intrigued by a next season (and very conscious of dozens of plot holes or irritatingly dropped details). I'm hoping some of that budding wonder fades before a second season — some people are sure to dig this series for its wanton disturbing absurdity and will find more episodes a necessity — because isn't life too short and too full of TV to watch things you don't like, exclusively because they make you scratch your head?

Cast: Uma Thurman, Tony Goldwyn, Sivan Alyra Rose, Lilliya Reid, Nicholas Galitzine, Kyanna Simone Simpson, Lilli Kay, Sarah Mezzanotte, Griffin Powell-Arcand, Marcus LaVoi
Creator: Leah Rachel
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)