You have to watch the first two episodes of the new Netflix series Chambers. And you maybe shouldn’t watch anything after that. The tense horror drama (streaming now) casts an immediate spell. Sasha (Sivan Alyra Rose) is a high schooler going all the way with her boyfriend TJ (Griffin Powell-Arcand). They’re poor kids in some distressed corner of Arizona, Navajo descendants living a long bus ride down an empty highway from the wealthy-white suburban enclave with the fancy school.
But Sasha and TJ are in love, so nothing else matters. The opening sequence of the Chambers pilot draws you into their rapture. They drive through the desert, horizon visible out the window. The song on the radio is “Still Ill” by the Smiths. Rain starts to fall, they don’t care. They make out, and go further. It’s her first time. Sasha’s heart explodes, not in the good way.
Cardiac arrest ensues — and a desperate last-minute organ transplant. Months later, Sasha’s got a scar across her torso and a new heart beating bad blood. Down the road a stretch, in wealthy Crystal Valley, a popular rich-kid blonde named Becky Lefevre (Lilliya Reid) died the same night as Sasha’s health crisis. Now Becky’s heart is in Sasha’s body — and Sasha’s experiencing strange Becky-dreams and bloody Becky-visions.
Becky’s parents reach out, seeking a connection with the girl who lives because their daughter died. Ben (Tony Goldwyn) and Nancy (Uma Thurman) wear their grief like form-fitted athleisure. They welcome Sasha and her uncle Frank (Marcus LaVoi) into their house, a cubic modernist mansion with a glass-walled wine cellar bigger than your first apartment. The Lefevres have created a scholarship in Becky’s name, and they want Sasha to have it. She’s a fish out of water in Crystal Valley’s high school. On her first day, she meets her life coach. The school’s nap room has Wi-Fi.
These first two episodes are directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, a boldface name for anyone who enjoys visual-treat TV. Gomez-Rejon perfected the particular style of FX’s American Horror Story, helming three episodes in the wonderful Asylum season that pushed the anthology’s campy-freaky eccentrics into deepweird theatricality. There’s not a wasted shot in the opening episodes. The most casual scenes are filmed with minor-key horror. Dinner at the Lefevres cuts between extreme close-ups, until the actors are almost staring right at you. There’s an overt early nudge toward Twin Peaks, with a dead-blonde Becky portrait staring at Sasha from the school’s trophy case. But the overall stylistic effect is less David Lynch than Nicolas Roeg — with just a dash of Georgia O’Keeffe.
Sivan Alyra Rose is a true newcomer and a real find, bringing a casual air to every line reading and a deep well of humanity to a concept that could induce eyerolls. Yes, there’s something weird about Becky’s heart. But the larger fear for Sasha is the possibility that she’s stepping into Becky’s life…and leaving her own behind.
Actually, Chambers represents a minor step forward in the depiction of the supernatural. There are familiar horror archetypes here, a couple Native American characters who proclaim that Sasha’s aura is all off. But the true bad vibes come from the Southwest Annex Foundation, a local spiritual wellness center that looks like a rehab utopia for demi-gods. The Lefevres sent their dirtbag son Elliott (Nicholas Galitzine) to the facility to clean out his heroin addiction. You know something’s off at the Annex immediately. Lili Taylor plays the eerily cheerful boss — and the foundation’s spring equinox party has a Moby soundtrack. Witness contemporary Caucasian woo-woo, spotless and succulent and (maybe?) Satanic.
Then Chambers has to become an actual TV show, and it never recovers. Creator Leah Rachel turns the first season into a long stall, a murder mystery box-checking clues while the characters gradually, gradually realize something obviously strange is going on. Chambers is a gorgeous show, shot around Albuquerque in the same evocative landscape that produced the Breaking Bad/Better Call Saulverse. But it turns repetitive, and then just plain boring. Even with ever-looper subject matter — drug trips, nightmare portals, stormy flashbacks — the directors after Gomez-Rejon can’t quite recover the initial all-encompassing feeling of danger and excitement. There’s a sharp tale here about race and class divides, but the show fails to develop the life in Sasha’s two worlds as anything more than a sketch. In a long ten-episode season, she never gets to do anything except freak out about her horror heart.
So Chambers is a mixed bag, maybe best experienced in a skip-around weekend binge. Thurman is very good in a part that variously calls for sensitive indie-movie grief and horror-queen freakouts. Teen viewers bored by the recent batch of Freeform/CW fare might get a kick out of the young-and-crazy antics: Airstream parties in a haunted desert, a vast prescription culture medicating any kid with a personality. Sasha and her friend Yvonne (Kyanna Simone Simpson) have an easy best-friend chemistry, a bit of humanity that goes a long way as the show gets tangled in its own obvious plot. When you can’t take anymore, skip to the twist ending, and pray season 2 can follow through.
First two episodes: A-
Everything Else: C-
Average, Let’s Say: B-