tales from the loop review

In Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag‘s surreal paintings, humans are dwarfed by the eerie visions of a retrofuturistic future: a dilapidated mech with a cartoonish cat visage lays smoking atop an elevated freeway, a red-eyed robot tangled in cords looms over a lone farmer, blonde-haired children aim a device at a tractor without a pilot. They give a sense of another time and place — made all the more uncanny by Stålenhag’s method of using digital tools to create the illusion of an oil painting. Stålenhag’s haunting paintings makes us humans look insignificant, small, unimportant. And so, so lonely.

But in Amazon’s Tales From the Loop, inspired by Stålenhag’s and his 2014 narrative art book of the same name, humanity dwarfs everything else.

Created by Nathaniel Halpern and executive produced by Matt Reeves, Amazon Studios’ Tales From the Loop is a semi-anthology series set in a small town built above “The Loop,” a mysterious underground facility that turns outlandish science-fiction concepts into reality. Time travel, visions of the future, alternate realities are all touched upon in Tales From the Loop, but they’re mere backdrops for character drama.

This reviewer only received episodes 1, 5, and 6 of the series, which made the viewing experience a little disconcerting upon discovery that this wasn’t really an anthology series. Rather, each episode is part of a series of thinly connected stories that focus on different character in the small town, revolving around the family of the enigmatic founder of the Loop, Russ Willard (a grave Jonathan Pryce, whose solemn exterior gives way to an achingly vulnerable performance). Rebecca Hall gives a brittle turn as Loretta, Russ’ daughter-in-law who had a childhood encounter with a mysterious object called The Eclipse. Loretta’s son, Cole (an appropriately wide-eyed Duncan Joiner), is perhaps the closest thing to a protagonist of the series, playing a central role in at least two of the episodes I watched.

Pryce kicks the first episode with an eerie Twilight Zone-esque introduction, inviting audiences into a world so like and unlike our own, full of strange tales and unanswered questions. But as the episodes go on, it’s clear that Tales From The Loop is not interested in those questions, or those tales, but the people at the center of them and the near-mundane drama that they go through: pining for a workplace crush, resenting an absentee mother, navigating hostile parents-in-law.

Watching these snippets of the show was frustrating at first, as the series seems intent on obscuring the nature of “The Loop” as much as possible — it’s a research facility built to study a globe-like contraption they call “The Eclipse,” but even the dozens of scientists who work there seem unsure of what they do. I was afraid at first that this was another series that suffered from mystery-box syndrome, hiding more than it would tell us. But it soon became clear that the mystery of “The Loop” was just a façade for its exploration of the profundity of the human experience.

The universal elements of grief, aging, parenthood, loneliness, and love are all explored in the series, given a fresh coat of paint thanks to the show’s striking retrofuturistic conceit. Stålenhag’s aesthetic of pastoral Swedish landscapes with an eerie sci-fi element is dutifully paid homage to by Tales From The Loop, which looks more beautiful than most other sci-fi series out there, simply by virtue of not flaunting it style. The series manages to capture that uncanny feeling of Stålenhag’s paintings by showing a perfectly idyllic scene, and making something a little off — a dead robot hidden in the grass, or the oppressive gray color scheme that coats so many moments. Through those detailed little touches, the series manages to evoke that dreadful loneliness of his paintings.

The show’s retrofuturistic stylings — characterized by a mid-century look coupled with a sleek 1960s vision of a technologically advanced future — is actually quite subdued, leaving the machines and sad-eyed robots to linger in the background. It’s an approach that works to highlight the character drama of the series. But this restrained approach often leads to dull stretches of…nothingness. At the show’s best, it reaches a sense of soulful quietude that opens your eyes to a new, unexplored aspect of humanity. But at its worst, the show’s slavish dedication to its aesthetic threatens to swallow up the entire thing. Halpern, who is best known as a writer on Legion, has that same flair for style that characterized the FX series. But the series often toes the line between beguiling and boring, through it shows enough flashes of brilliance to keep you hooked.

Tales From the Loop debuts on Amazon Prime on April 3, 2020.

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