“The Crowded Room” is a heartfelt portrait of mental illness from an array of viewpoints. We see it reflected in the statements made by Tom Holland’s Danny Sullivan, a man arrested for having fired a gun into a crowd in New York City in 1979. We see it through the analytical and sympathetic eyes of Amanda Seyfried’s Rya Goodwin, the psychology professor brought in by the police to question him. And we see it in the closed eyes of those in denial, those who have an investment — emotional, legal, psychological — in not seeing it even while it stares them in the face.
In this way, “The Crowded Room” is a challenging piece, 10 episodes of haunting shadows and, perhaps, in the corners of the story, cracks of light. Created by Akiva Goldsman, whose long screenwriting career includes “The Da Vinci Code” and an Oscar for “A Beautiful Mind,” it’s very loosely based on a Daniel Keyes’s 1981 book “The Minds of Billy Milligan,” which was a nonfiction-novel treatment of a true story. But it’s best to watch the show without straining to compare the three versions. Indeed, best to watch it without knowing much going in, so that its eventual revelations will have their intended power.
The miniseries, which premieres Friday on Apple TV+, is part thriller, part family sketch, part diagnostic exercise, and, in the last third, part courtroom drama. It all starts in the interrogation room, as Danny describes to Rya how he came to be at the shooting with his friend Ariana (Sasha Lane), with whom he was living in a home owned by their older friend Yitzhak (Lior Raz). We see the story unfold in flashbacks as Danny speaks, Rya encouraging him and working to gain his trust, learning about his weary mother, Candy (Emmy Rossum) and his aggressive stepfather, Marlin (Will Chase), the bully who drove Danny away from home.
Rya listens carefully, clearly intrigued and increasingly devoted to the case. The middle section of “The Crowded Room” delves somewhat into Rya’s life, and what she has at stake in Danny’s situation both personally and professionally. She is post-traumatic, to some extent, after a divorce that has left her overwhelmed with caring for her preteen son, and she is also on an arduous search for legitimacy in the academic psychology community. Christopher Abbott’s Stan Camisa, who shows up in the last third as Danny’s defense attorney, also becomes attached to Danny’s fate. He has PTSD from his service in the Vietnam War, which he tries to keep at bay with anti-anxiety medications.
“The Crowded Room” isn’t by any means equating Rya’s and Stan’s struggles with those of Danny. But there is a miniseries-length theme having to do with how we as humans deal with suffering, how we find life jackets that fit — but that at some point we outgrow. It’s certainly not a new idea, and we’ve seen it on all kinds of shows ranging from “Dexter,” “Yellowjackets,” and “Sharp Objects” to “Ted Lasso.” But the miniseries does a sound job of bringing us into how and why these adaptations to pain develop. The things we do to survive, they can be brave in the face of inhumanity, if useful only temporarily.
Holland is consistently riveting. He commits to some of the behavioral quirks associated with mental illness that, in the wrong hands, could seem silly. It’s nice to see that his Marvel franchise work hasn’t flattened his abilities. Seyfried, too, is excellent, a compassionate but never sappy presence while in the room listening intently to Danny. Rossum’s Candy is effectively beat, unable to pry herself from a toxic marriage from Marlin, who is played with creepy pretend normalcy by Chase. And Abbott, as usual, brings the intensity, as Stan finds working in support of Danny may ultimately help him work on himself.
I don’t want to ignore some of the flaws of “The Crowded Room,” which, like so many miniseries of late, is an episode or two too long. There are moments, especially during the courtroom segment, when the narrative falls back on some too-familiar tricks. But it’s nonetheless a respectful, often compelling deconstruction of a serious disorder, one that will probably stick with you.
THE CROWDED ROOM
Starring: Tom Holland, Amanda Seyfried, Emmy Rossum, Will Chase, Christopher Abbott, Sasha Lane, Jason Isaacs, Thomas Sadoski, Laila Robins, Lior Raz, Levon Hawke
On: Apple TV+. Premieres Friday with the first three episodes.