Tales From the Loop – Season 1

Rating:

Melancholy Daydreams

Main Cast: Rebecca Hall, Paul Schneider

Developed for TV: Nathaniel Halpern

I’m a sucker for gentle science fiction. Alien space battles are fine, but I much prefer it when the tech is wrapped around the stories of people. Tales From the Loop has exactly the sort of premise I find appealing. I need, as always, to check my instincts.

Tales From the Loop is an Amazon Prime Video original series about a town in which most of the adults work underground at something called The Loop. The Loop is an experimental physics laboratory where all sorts of impossible things happen every day. Those things inevitably make their way into the lives of everyone in town.

Based on an art book by Swedish author Simon Stålenhag (which also inspired a table top role-playing game), Tales From the Loop is set in an anonymous American town in the 1970s or early 1980s. The time period is never given – it’s up to the audience to decide based on clothing, architecture, and other references. Let’s just say there are no cell phones and computers are enormous. The 10 episodes, connected but not creating a single story arc, focus on the ancillary effects of The Loop rather than the facility itself. What is it that happens when regular people stumble on the fantastic?

This could have gone a lot of ways. It could have been hard core, fantastical adventures in the world of the impossible. But the show runners chose a different route. Tales From the Loop is a collection of cautionary tales using the wonders of invention as ways to remind us to be careful what we wish for. The series episodes revolve primarily around one family – Loretta (Rebecca Hall) and George (Paul Schneider) and their sons Cole (Duncan Joiner) and Jakob (Daniel Zolghadri). George’s father (Jonathan Pryce) founded The Loop, George and Loretta work there. Cole and Jakob connect it to the wider community. Each episode has its own main cast (and director) and focus, spinning out from that familial nucleus. The result is an anthology of stories all taking place in the same world.

And it is a strange and often sad world. The technology is mostly based on the drawings by Stålenhag and has a worn down, primitive feel to it that creates a very strong late 20th century vibe. It’s a curious feeling when these dated looking artifacts are the source of mystery and regret, over and over. They appear barely functional, yet are relentless and unforgiving.

The episodes are accompanied by a sad, ethereal score by Philip Glass that sets a melancholy tone for the entire series. The episodes are leisurely paced and meticulously filmed to maximize the overarching themes of nostalgia, wistfulness, and regret that permeate the stories. The result is a series that feels heavy and sad. There is little light in this town, and very little happiness in its denizens. And in the end the series is drowned by its own disconsolate self-reflection.

There are things I really liked about Tales From the Loop. Three fantastic performances shine out – Daniel Zolghadri as Jakob, a teenager struggling to come of age in his weird town and somber family; Ato Essandoh in arguably the best episode of the series playing a man gifted and cursed with the opportunity to meet himself in a different life; and Dan Bakkedahl (Tim from Life in Pieces) as a father trying desperately to wrest control from an uncooperative world. Each makes the absolute most of the material he is given and the episodes and series are better for it.

The visuals are stunning and disconcerting. I don’t know how the designers managed to create a world that is both deeply familiar (to anyone who lived through the 70s and 80s) and naggingly uncomfortable. Rather than evoke a whimsical nostalgia, the production veers toward grief and neglect and ultimately resigned sadness. It’s an achievement, though one that comes with acknowledgement rather than admiration or appreciation. It looks great, but it feels bad.

Overall, Tales From the Loop is too filled with melancholy for me to say I liked it. I admire some of the performances, and appreciate the production quality. I even enjoyed some of the episodes. But the overall tone is one of such overwhelming resignation and sadness that after each episode I needed a dose of sitcom to cleanse my palette. Maybe it just isn’t a good show to watch during a pandemic. Or maybe it’s easier for people who weren’t alive during the time period depicted. But for me, Tales From the Loop just left me sad at the end of every episode. It is beautifully made, but I don’t really recommend it unless you are, perhaps, in need of a cry or want to ponder your regret-filled existence.

Tales From the Loop is streaming on Amazon Prime Video  

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