Chambers, the new supernatural drama being released this week on Netflix, really wants to intrigue you. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be terribly certain how to go about doing that, so it ends up throwing a whole bunch of dark imagery on screen and hoping some of it sticks.
There’s a lot of TV forebears evoked by the series narrative—Twin Peaks and Picket Fences are two of the more obvious ones—but the show also looks to cinema in its design and cinematography, most notably the beautiful avant-garde work of Chilean-French oddball Alejandro Jodorowsky. This strange admixture of influences is what makes Chambers stand out in the crowded streaming landscape (you don’t encounter many shows featuring visions in which a character pulls apart their chest to reveal live mice pouring out onto the ground), but it also ends up being part of what hamstrings the story. It’s so busy trying to tantalize the viewer with subtle allusions to dark forces and crafting striking sequences of mystical horror, it eventually gets weighed down by the overstuffed supernatural hokum and fails to build momentum in the plotting.
The show follows Sasha (Sivan Alyra Rose), a teenage girl who suffered a freak heart attack and received a heart transplant from Becky Lefevre (Lilliya Reid), a girl in a posh neighboring town who happened to die that same night. After meeting the parents of the dead girl (Tony Goldwyn and Uma Thurman), she starts an uneasy relationship with the family, who are eager to ensure that the untimely death of their daughter will at least do some good in this world. To that end, they start helping her out—a scholarship to their daughter’s elite school, a Prius to get her to and from her working-class town (and its American Indian population, half of Sasha’s parentage), and more, all of which brings Sasha into the orbit of those who knew Becky.
Anyone who’s seen a horror movie involving a transplant of body parts knows what’s going to happen next: Sasha starts experiencing visions of Becky, and begins to feel things from the perspective of the dead girl. As she grows steadily more convinced that there’s another entity inside her, strange incidents suggest some of the many new people around her may know more about this transformation than they’re letting on. Of course, her own mysterious background starts to come into play as well, but the show doesn’t exactly equivocate on its magical goings-on: It’s maybe 20 minutes into the first episode when a crazy woman on the street is already yelling at Sasha, “You don’t want her in you!”
You certainly can’t fault the series for its aesthetics. Chambers is often gorgeous to look at, thanks to the style established by pilot director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who brings the ornate gothic flourishes and talent for blocking to create rich tableaux that he displayed on American Horror Story and films like Me And Earl And The Dying Girl. His usual attention-getting tendencies serve the story more successfully here, where the zooms, canted angles, and Tom Hooper-esque close-ups can all be retroactively justified with any little nod to supernatural intrusions on the frame. And a lineup of talented helmers carry that torch throughout the first-season run, from Ti West to Goldwyn himself, pulling double duty in front of and behind the camera for the penultimate episode.
The narrative, unfortunately, is a far messier concoction. As it progresses, Chambers keeps tossing out red herring after red herring, intent on making sure that everyone has a secret and nothing is as it seems. This is promising at first, but as each subplot curlicues into the ether, either by revealing yet another layer of complications beneath it or simply being waved away as yet another random magical occurrence or conspiracy never to be justified (a tiny hole in the wall of Sasha’s bedroom, with an unknown eye peering through to goose the end of the second episode, is never returned to nor explained), it all starts to crumble under the weight of these mysterious implausibilities. One character’s hysterical pregnancy, another’s obsessive stalking—they all turn out to just be ways of marking time until, in the last couple of episodes, the show stops treading water and becomes remarkably straightforward in an attempt to explain everything before wrapping up with a twist teasing the next season.
And that weakness, of simply lacking the depth of story necessary to fill 10 episodes with what could’ve been done in half that, makes some otherwise compelling television a bit thin. The performances vary somewhat in quality—Goldwyn and Thurman both sell the hell out of their often absurd roles, which are under- and over-written, respectively, and while she doesn’t always succeed in conveying Sasha’s conflicted inner life, Sivan Alyra Rose deserves the honorary “Sheryl Lee As Laura Palmer” Award For Portraying An Essentially Impossible Role. The middle episodes get muddled down in soapy plot twists, with deeply silly lines like “Being close to my daughter’s heart has done strange things” not helping matters.
Still, the ambition is admirable. Episodes will jump forward and backward in time, teasing out elements of story in ways not often seen on television, and helping to keep the endless J.J. Abrams-style mystery-box tactics of the show from getting overly tiresome. Fans of ’90s alt-rock and shoegaze will find joy in the soundtrack, which prominently features The Stone Roses’ “I Wanna Be Adored” as a key plot element (even if its repeated lyric of “He’s already in me” is awfully on the nose, thematically). That it all turns out to be in service of a mystery that doesn’t earn all these overly complicated bells and whistles doesn’t take away from the pulpy pleasures of Chambers’ mystical conspiracy. If it returns for a second season, hopefully it will have learned the same lesson as its main character: Just because someone has something to hide doesn’t make it inherently interesting.