Review: "Chambers" Season One (Netflix)

To describe Chambers from only its trailer you'd say it was a young adult horror show with good scares but a middling story. Don't misunderstand me, you'd say, the story isn't bad, it's just nothing new. The issue, you'd insist, was the acting, or maybe the camerawork, or maybe you just didn't like the characters. The main character is a teenage girl, after all, and only half of us can really say we relate, right?

You'd be...mostly right.

There are problems with Chambers, let me say that up front. They're not egregious sins in the face of God to be repented by begged forgiveness. They are, however, simple things you wouldn't expect from a show of such quality storycraft. Before you can grasp how out of place they feel I think it prudent to explain how well made the show is as a whole.

The plot itself is where the careful attention paid shines most brightly. After guiding us through the night main character Sasha's heart stops and she receives a shockingly prompt transplant, we return often through many new lenses. At first it's a poorly timed accident, then it's a miracle, then it's something worse. This all while the story of today trots along at an appreciable pace.

Sivan Alyra Rose, playing the lead, is a convincing teenager, presumably pulling from very recent experience as Netflix's first Native lead actress was in the waning months of 18 when production began. She feels strongly, dances when no one's watching, lashes out, and just wants to get laid. At least in the beginning. Unfortunately for Sasha, as with most teenagers, life takes a turn after that fateful moment.

Griffin Powell-Arcand plays opposite Rose as her reservation-born boyfriend, TJ Locklear. Though it's not clear if the character description specifically called for a Post Malone look alike, Powell-Arcand manages to act beyond his hairstyle's presumptions and be a caring, genuine, if somewhat aloof beau to Rose's more withdrawn, internalized Sasha. At the least, the pair work on paper and on screen.

It isn't until we're introduced to the LeFevres, Sasha's donor family, that the show starts to stretch its ridged claws and get your heart rate pumping. It's difficult to offer many examples without giving too much away, but suffice to say shit gets serious real quick.

Uma Thurman, here playing the grieving mother LeFevre, looks for purpose after the loss of her daughter, Becky. She quickly forms a strange bond with Sasha, a dissonance born of her grief for Becky and her joy of having a "new" daughter. As with most other things, this relationship gets way out of hand by the end of the season, but it makes for some of the most engaging acting in the show.

Through the LeFevres, Sasha and her cadre, including best friend Yvonne (played by Kyanna Simone Simpson), become privy to the strange business of the Southwest Annex, a holistic congregation with strong cult vibes and a sanguinary appreciation for the healing properties of crystals. The LeFevres are members of the Annex, though it's quickly apparent Uma Thuman's Nancy participates primarily to support her husband, Ben (played by Tony Goldwyn). This becomes an ever-widening rift between the two.

In the midst of all of this is Sasha's uncle and guardian, Big Frank Yazzie (played by Marcus Lavoi), an oft-forgotten character who serves mostly as the parental wall off which Sasha bounces her emotional volleys. Sasha's problems grow rapidly and Frank loses his relevance proportionally, which is unfortunate because he's the only sane, reasonable, adult character in the show.

Categorically the biggest problem I have with the story is that it feels incomplete. There are so many characters that are robbed of any real developmental time because of the necessities of the central plot (that is, the crazy nightmare hallucinations Sasha begins to have after meeting the LeFevres). Ten episodes seems to have been a few short of necessity, and the season suffers as a whole for it. One could argue that this leaves more plot open for a potential next season, but the twist that pops up in the last two episodes, thereby setting up a significant cliffhanger, leaves plenty for a further season to interpret and expand upon. These are things that now run the risk of feeling shoehorned into the story later.

Speaking of the ending, it's not entirely unexpected in a sense, but the specifics of it are certainly underwhelming. The show spends so much time focusing on Native culture, including their rituals and beliefs, that you worry their choice has turned them away from that influence toward a more traditional, "safer" story. Then again, throughout season one we see multiple examples of these writers reinventing tradition (trading Ayahuasca rituals for good ol' DMT in a crack pipe, for instance) so perhaps any concern is misplaced.

Still, where the story strides its technical execution stumbles. Much time is spent on severe close ups of characters talking, nullifying any use of the space around them and making a fairly expansive story feel cramped, especially given the discussions being had during these moments. With such wonderful set design and costuming, I'd have loved to see these characters in broader view for longer, giving these actors a chance to incorporate their physicality during more personal scenes with emotional intensity.

The scares are limited, only a few per episode of varying spookiness, and as more of the story unfolds and we begin to recognize them they are less striking. This causes a strange power creep where things are only mildly spooky in episode one, and by episode ten everything has gone completely fucking bonkers. It escalates very quickly, is what I'm saying.

In fact were it not for the overtly horrific elements of some of the early scares I would hesitate to call it a horror series at all, and more of a supernatural thriller, though I suppose the distinction is arbitrary.

All told the story is engaging, the acting ranges between passable and noteworthy, but some of the directorial techniques come off less auteur-ish and more weird-idea-that-didn't-work-ish. The Native representation is rich, though the twist at the end bitters it, leaving a creative longing for what could have been. As Young Adult fare it does well, but I don't see it being a prize winner outside of specialty ceremonies.

I give Chambers Season One 3 Jakes out of 5 possible Jakes. A solid story and set design carry the project above mediocrity, but its flight is stunted by strange shots and a mildly disappointing (though unexpected) twist ending.


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