Amidst the ever-growing small-screen landscape — “peak TV”, “the golden age of television” and all those other catchy ways to describe the non-stop hordes of shows continually competing for our eyeballs these days — is there a genre as alluring as sci-fi anthologies that contemplate dystopian futures? It isn’t the most jam-packed, because it’ll never reach the same kinds of numbers as serious dramas about middle-aged white guys struggling with their lives, but it just might be the most enticing and absorbing. In episode-sized chunks, these eerie series ponder how our world might evolve, and how it already is. They leap forward in time, even if only slightly, while extrapolating from our current status quo and present technological capacity to muse on the delights and horrors in store. Sometimes, they simply embrace weird and wonderful science fiction ideas. And, serving up a savvy blend of mystery and speculation, they draw viewers into a realm overflowing with intrigue.
Melancholy and meditative, TALES FROM THE LOOP fits that mould perfectly, as a modest but weighty range of shows have before it. Think BLACK MIRROR, but with every story set in one tiny town. Think THE TWILIGHT ZONE, too — pick your version, any version — if its plethora of strange tales featured overlapping characters. THE OUTER LIMITS, ELECTRIC DREAMS, LOVE, DEATH AND ROBOTS… the list of TALES FROM THE LOOP’s predecessors, great and not so much, goes on. While YEARS AND YEARS isn’t an anthology series, its snapshot of events and technologies to come, all woven around the lives of one family, also sets a precedent. But, as created, developed and written by LEGION’s Nathaniel Halpern, and executive produced by a team that includes CLOVERFIELD, LET ME IN, and both DAWN OF and WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES director Matt Reeves, as well as ONE HOUR PHOTO and NEVER LET ME GO filmmaker Mark Romanek, this addition to the sci-fi anthology fold actually finds its basis in a book of paintings. That’s unique and refreshing, and despite the fact that it seamlessly slides into its chosen genre, so is this Amazon series.
Those artworks, as crafted by Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, present a vision of the future that also sports a retro feel — as befitting images of robots against rural landscapes, of decaying technology strewn across the outskirts of suburbia, and of sky-high, gleaming structures looming over sleepy locales. It’s steampunk but filtered through ‘80s sci-fi, and that look and vibe transitions to the series that shares the art tome’s name, evoking a glimpse of futuristic possibilities that seem firmly steeped in a recognisable reality. First, picture any stereotypical sleepy midwest US town, of the type that many a movie has splashed across the screen (and that, even if you’ve never stepped foot in America, everyone feels like they’ve visited). Then, add a trio of buildings that could’ve been ripped from BLADE RUNNER, METROPOLIS or the like, where everyone nearby either works or wants to, and which house a metallic globe deep in their depths. Next, scatter abandoned old robots in the woods and rusting spheres throughout fields, while infusing the daily lives of the town’s inhabitants with small pieces of technology advanced far beyond today’s parameters.
That’s where TALES FROM THE LOOP resides, and where it unfurls its eight-episode first season, with episodes directed by an impressive array of talent: including Romanek, who has been absent from the big screen for too long; WALL-E and JOHN CARTER’s Andrew Stanton; THE ONE I LOVE and THE DISCOVERY’s Charlie McDowell; THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and THE INNKEEPERS’ Ti West; FOR ELLEN and LOVESONG’s So Yong Kim; and, after also jumping behind the camera on BLACK MIRROR, Jodie Foster. Each chapter focuses on a different character, a lost soul searching for a connection, with the series charting their run-ins with the town’s wonders and quirks. The aforementioned towering compound and its mysterious machine comprises The Loop, a facility established to explore the mysteries of the universe — and its presence in Mercer, Ohio causes considerable consequences. For young Loretta (Abby Ryder Fortson), it upends her place in time. For teenage friends Jakob (Daniel Zolghadri) and Danny (Tyler Barnhardt), it swaps them into each other’s bodies. Cole (Duncan Joiner) and his grandfather Russ (Jonathan Pryce) shout into a sphere and discover how long they have left to live, while Cole also learns that wandering too far into the forest isn’t recommended. Gaddis (Ato Essandoh) meets an alternate version of himself that’s living out his dreams, while May (Nicole Law) discovers how to pause everything going on around her so that she can indulge her fantasies.
Refreshingly, the strangeness that befalls TALES FROM THE LOOP’s characters isn’t treated like a big twist. Finding out which technology-fuelled dream or nightmare they’ll encounter isn’t the primary point, either. Once something odd happens in the first episode, viewers know that each subsequent chapter — including those interweaving Jakob and Cole’s parents (Rebecca Hall and Paul Schneider), or focusing on Danny’s feuding mom and dad (Dan Bakkedahl and Lauren Weedman) — will do the same. So, the show doesn’t waste time drawing out that kind of tension. It doesn’t expend its energy trying to explain what’s going on, either. That’s one of TALES FROM THE LOOP’s most compelling aspects: its willingness to present an array of sci-fi ‘what if?’-style scenarios that don’t unpack the rhyme and reason behind them. Instead, they embrace the truth that unexplained things will always occur, and that uncertainty and not having all the answers is part life, even if we don’t like it. They understand that knowing why time travel occurs, or a body swap happens, or time stands still, is all well and great, but knowing how it feels to those experiencing those phenomena, and how it changes their lives, is far more moving and involving. And, they don’t shy away from the fact that all of the above doesn’t always lead to a happy outcome.
In Halpern’s hands, that narrative approach proves ruminative and precisely paced, as TALES FROM THE LOOP soaks in as much minutiae as it can in each episode in its understated way. Introspective from start to finish, it has time to peer at Mercer and The Loop’s low-fi tech, whether peering in detail or spying it in gorgeous wide-screen shots that places each item in the context of its small-town surroundings. Most of all, it has the bandwidth to interrogate how, even when futuristic discoveries enable the impossible to become possible, some experiences and the emotions they evoke will always remain universal. Falling in love, especially for the first time, will always feel like the rest of the world has ceased to exist around you and the object of your affection. Growing up, and particularly reaching that point in childhood when you fully realise that you’re growing up, will always feel like venturing out of your comfort zone and returning to a place that, while appearing familiar, is forever changed.
As explored with a primary focus on character and a mood that’s always probing, inquisitive yet bittersweet, trying to find common ground with your parents, coping with your jealousy about a friend, discovering whether you’ll betray someone you care about and facing mortality about all fall into TALES FROM THE LOOP’s remit, too. Yes, it should all sound immensely relatable, because even when technology progresses, certain aspects of human life and human nature are immutable. The series never forgets its futuristic elements, or the fact that its pastoral backdrops and the technology littered across them purposefully clash. However, how we react on a daily basis, even when advancements thrust our lives into the domain of science fiction, is its main concern — and it’s as immersive as it is riveting, especially when brought to the screen with the visual allure of a mesmerizing work of art.
It’s a series to get lost in, and easily; a thoughtful, patient and gleefully ambiguous show to binge your way through until your queue is suddenly empty and you, like the show’s characters, feel as if you’ve just undergone a distinctive experience. Also, within its literally pretty-as-a-picture frames, TALES FROM THE LOOP gives PRIMER and UPSTREAM COLOR writer/director/actor Shane Carruth a brief but pivotal on-screen role. In the absence of any new features from the filmmaker since 2013, that alone is reason enough to press play on this excellent addition to the sci-fi anthology TV realm.