As Chambers opens, the series' teenaged protagonist Sasha Yazzie (Sivan Alyra Rose) knows she's in for a memorable night that will change her life, she just doesn't yet know why. Her plan is to tell her uncle and guardian "Big" Frank Yazzie (Marcus LaVoi) that she's studying, and then spend the evening losing her virginity to her boyfriend TJ (Griffin Powell-Arcand) at a mattress store, and everything seems to be going to plan until, with no warning, her heart gives out and the couple's plans take an unexpected turn that sends TJ running through the street with her dying body.
But that's not the end of Sasha's story, even if it does turn out to be the end of the life she once knew. After the series flash forwards a bit, we see she's recovered nicely from her out-of-the-blue heart attack, apart from a scar on her chest that betrays the heart transplant that saved her life while, she'll soon learn, introducing an entirely different sort of danger.
The early episodes of Chambers, created by Leah Rachel, flesh out an engrossing world and fill it with intriguing details. Set in a corner of Arizona filled with long, dusty roads, dramatic sandstorms, New Age true believers, and restless spirits, it mixes a slow-building supernatural horror story with teen drama and some keenly observed details about its setting. Sasha and her uncle Frank are both Diné (better known to the non-Native world as Navajo) but their lives barely touch the traditions of their ancestors, Frank having parted ways with his father after an incident revealed later in the series.
Sasha attends high school in nearby Cottonwood, a working- and middle-class town where her classmates range from TJ, who lives on the reservation and has decided to carry on Diné traditions, to her African-American best friend Yvonne (Kyanna Simone Simpson). It seems like a fine school, if not the sort of place likely to open up new opportunities for an orphaned kid whose guardian runs a struggling aquarium store called Wet Pets.
It's not, in other words, Crystal Valley, the wealthy community that's home to an elite high school recently attended by Becky Lefevre (Lilliya Reid), a girl who died under odd circumstances and whose heart now beats inside Sasha's chest. But, after she's invited by Becky's parents Nancy (Uma Thurman) and Ben (Tony Goldwyn) to attend Crystal Valley High on a scholarship they've started in Becky's name, Sasha starts to suspect more than just Becky's heart might have made the leap to her body. Or maybe there's some other reason her new acquaintances can't seem to get their story straight about who Becky was and what happened to her.
With its outsider protagonist trying to piece together a mystery in a sometimes hostile environment dominated by the wealthy and the privileged, Chambers often plays like a supernatural spin on Veronica Mars' first season. It doesn't have Veronica Mars' humor, but Rose, a promising newcomer, keeps the sometimes bizarre storyline anchored with a grounded, no-nonsense performance. Sasha keeps her feelings hidden, but Rose always conveys just how much is at stake, and how terrified she often is beneath even as she keeps a straight face. She's given able support by the rest of the cast, too, especially LaVoi, who's all heart beneath an intimidating frame.
Chambers also makes effective use both of the striking natural surroundings and the contrast between the New Age beliefs of the Lefevres and their friends — Lili Taylor does all-star supporting work as a devotee of something called "bumblebee breathing" — and Sasha's identity crisis. Even before she's drawn into Crystal Valley, she's a character stuck between worlds, considered an "apple" by people like TJ's family, who see her as abandoning her traditional ways.
Foreboding direction helps, too. American Horror Story veteran Alfonso Gomez-Rejon creates an unsettling mood with the pilot that's sustained by subsequent directors like Ti West (The House of the Devil) and others. The world here looks dusty, the color palette is muted, and the camera settles on intimate angles that draw in the setting. It sets a tone that this is serious YA fare, which Chambers tries to be.
Unfortunately, the deeper Chambers gets into its mystery the more it loses its way. The series stacks extraneous subplots atop one another and starts to tip from eerie to silly as Sasha gets closer to the truth. It's also yet another series that suffers from a nagging sense that it doesn't have enough story to fill a full season, in this case 10 episodes. To fill the time, it pads out the central story with Big Frank's difficult relationship with a loan shark, Nancy's psychosomatic (or is it?) pregnancy, and some ominous cameos from a possibly imaginary coyote. Not everyone from the cast benefits, either. Thurman and Goldwyn both turn in strong performances as characters marked by an unfathomable loss, but they suffer from the story's need to shroud them in mystery since Sasha, and we, remain in the dark about their true motivations.
Yet even if it goes from absorbing to frustrating, particularly in a final episode that sets up a second season that would have to be a radical departure from the first, Chambers has enough going for it to make it worth a look. Its appealing lead, unusual setting, and stylish visuals help set it apart, even if those elements don't always, or even often, cohere. Like Sasha, it sometimes seems to be in the grips of an identity crisis, but each episode has something — a cliffhanger, an offhand remark suggesting a strange twist to come, an eerie moment — that makes it easy to hit the "play next" button even as the sense Chambers knows where it's going, and the journey will be worth the trip, starts to fade.
Chambers premieres Friday, Apr. 26 on Netflix.