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Tales from the Loop (2020) IMDB description: “The townspeople who live above “The Loop,” a machine built to unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe, experience things previously consigned to the realm of science fiction.”
Why I took it off the list: After reading a few intriguing reviews, I was thinking about checking out the new Amazon Prime series Outer Range (2022-) with Josh Brolin.
Then I realized I had yet to check out another hybrid of small-town Americana and sci-fi from the streamer that I’d had on my list for a while, Tales from the Loop (2020). So I decided to check that earlier series off first.
Review of Tales from the Loop (2020)
Inspired by the unique retro-futuristic images of Simon Stålenhag, Tales from the Loop has some undeniably beautiful source material to draw from. The Swedish artist’s images of regular people going about their business in idyllic pastoral landscapes dotted with weather-worn sci-fi technology evoke a pleasing mix of nostalgia and the awe of something unknown.
The art would seem to make an ideal backdrop for a sci-fi/drama. And it does convert beautifully to live-action. Ståenhag’s bizarre machinery and rusty robots are seamlessly bought to life using both meticulously detailed puppets and excellent CGI, and blend in with some incredibly shot real-life locations.
The problem is that there wasn’t really a meaty narrative behind the images depicted in the eponymous art book and a roleplaying game that it later inspired. Only a basic concept of ‘The Loop’, an underground particle accelerator facility that results in futuristic machinery and strange anomalies in the town above.
So the showrunners obviously had to get seriously creative. What they settled on was a sort of anthology series with largely stand-alone episodes focusing on individual residents of the town having different uncanny experiences as a result of the underground experiments.
Suffers from Passive, Sometimes Downright Negligent Characters
While the series maintains the wistful, dreamy vibe of Ståenhag’s art, it opts to unfold at a (sometimes way too) slow, contemplative pace that puts human emotion above sci-fi trappings. That’s all well and good. But sometimes the story almost threatens to evaporate completely, making for a patience-trying experience at times.
Additionally, the series constantly pushes the theme that there is not much that humans can do in the face of unforeseen consequences. That we must ultimately accept this and try to be happy despite the curve balls that life throws us. This is an admirable message and proves for some truly affecting scenes. But it also leaves the characters as passive onlookers without much agency in many of the episodes.
There’s also the fact that this pervasive attitude leaves some of the characters looking downright negligent. For example, Johnathan Pryce’s character Russ, the creator of ‘The Loop’, is presented as a benevolent grandfather, wise and almost all-knowing.
But the fact that a supposed genius leaves dangerous equipment from his experiments all over the town for the unwitting residents to blunder into a kind of suggests otherwise. The consequences of the characters’ mishaps with machines they don’t understand lead to horrifying and irreversible consequences in some cases.
That these preventable injustices are almost uniformly presented as important life lessons and shrugged off with a ‘oh well, shit happens’ attitude leaves a bit of a sour aftertaste in a couple of the episodes.
Visually Stunning and Surprising Despite Drawbacks
Tales from the Loop also suffers from a cloying, repetitive musical score that works way too hard to try to draw out emotion. It’s almost a relief when the series majorly switches the soundtrack up in the 7th episode for a more discordant sound to match its much darker, horror-tinged story.
This episode, directed by the great Ti West, leans more into genre than most of the others, in this case, a classic monster story set on a deserted island. It’s easily one of the show’s strongest efforts and boasts some of the lushest nostalgia-tinged photography of the whole series. This is saying something because the cinematography is incredible across all of the episodes.
The production design of Tales from the Loop is also commendable. The show is filled with a mash-up of period and anachronistic details a la Bates Motel (2013-17) that make it hard to tell when each episode is taking place, leading to some surprising story turns.
And despite some of the stories feeling untethered to a larger narrative and a little repetitive, the series does manage to pull many of its threads together in a satisfying, moving way in the final episode.
Final Score: 6.5/10
Tales from the Loop (2020): Worth Checking Out?
It depends. Tales from the Loop is a gorgeous show that can also be incredibly moving at times. But even the most patient viewers will be tempted to hit fast forward during its drawn-out and ponderously paced episodes, and many of the characters feel like passive ciphers.
Still, if you’re willing to go at its pace, the series is a thoughtful slice of sci-fi that focuses more on humans than most things in the genre and pays off by looping back to tie up some loose threads in a satisfying way.
Tales from the Loop (2020)
Created by Nathaniel Halpern