Entertainment » Television

Tales From The Loop

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Apr 3, 2020
'Tales from the Loop'
'Tales from the Loop'  (Source:Amazon Studios)

In a manner not dissimilar to the short-lived 1998 sci-fi series "Welcome to Paradox," Amazon Prime's new anthology show "Tales from the Loop" offers new and different stories each week with the episodes all occurring in the same general locale — that of Mercer, Ohio, a city literally built on top of a hi-tech project known as "The Loop."

This turns out to be a massive underground complex, its curving corridors suggesting that maybe The Loop is some sort of cyclotron or particle accelerator. But at the center of the complex rests a forbidding black sphere, a throbbing mass that bristles with honeycomb-like geometrical facets. This is know as "The Eclipse," and its mysteries are as profound as its capacities to bend the laws of reality as we know them.

Unlike "Welcome to Paradox," though, "Tales from the Loop" features a cast of recurring characters. What changes week to week, as different characters claim the spotlight, is the tone and specific sub-genre of the stories. The general ideas are familiar from speculative fiction - what if you could swap bodies with someone else? What if you had a device that could stop time, or a way to tell how long your life will be? - but the things that creator Nathaniel Halpern (who wrote all eight Season One episodes) does with them are new and surprising.

Halpern doesn't create a tightly-wound web of intrigue leading to a conspiracy. Rather, the close-knit, insular town of Mercer is littered with inventions that go astray, or are lost or discarded. It's when those devices fall into the hands of the unwary - often, the town's young people - that the stories germinate, and they unfold in ways that feel grounded in real-world sensibilities. That's a welcome change of pace fro sci-fi shows that are all sunlight and sugar, or else dystopian and dark; these stories play for keeps and they usually have life-changing (or life-ending) consequences.

But this isn't "Black Mirror," with its skeptical and sometimes scolding commentary in the perils of technology. Nor is it an "X Files" sort of show, a highly-serialized contest pitting megalomanic technocrats against ordinary residents. There's no sense here of heroes or villains or over-arcing struggles that put the existence of the whole world in the balance. Rather, it's everyday (and often clueless) people who serve as their own antagonists. They struggle to make sense of the world, and the strange technologies they discover become tools - dangerous tools - in their efforts. Thus, a bereaved father stands guard over his hurting family with a remote-controlled junkyard robot, while another father revisits his own childhood trauma with fresh understanding.

There are threads, though, that carry over throughout the season. A high-concept fantasy about a little girl named Loretta (Abby Ryder Fortson), whose home and mother have suddenly, inexplicably vanished informs several ensuing episodes - not in terms of plot, but rather emotional fallout. A recurring character - sometimes central, other times peripheral - is a kid named Cole, through whose eyes the town's strangeness (and wonderful possibilities) seem most clearly understood. Of particular interest to LGBTQ viewers is the episode in which a background character, Gattis, steps forward; Gattis may or may not be the "only gay in the village," to quote from "Little Britain," but he's lonely enough that he might as well be. When a misadventure with a stray piece of farm machinery whisks him into a new life, he finds the man of his dreams (or at least his fantasies) within arm's reach... and yet, just beyond his grasp.

The mix of new, familiar, and recurring elements and characters turns every odd thing about Mercer, its environs, and its inhabitants into a rich opportunity for speculation. That shack in the woods where a pile of snow seemingly falls upwards through a hole in the roof... what's that all about? Or: That shy robot we glimpse from time to time as it wanders around in the woods... what's his story? In a show that proves more than capable of breaking your heart, you never know where the next poignant, powerful surprise is going to come from.

If The Eclipse is the thrumming, powerful heart of The Loop, then Russ (Jonathan Pryce) is the brains behind the operation. Russ is a brilliant scientist; it's not clear exactly what his field is, or whether he's seeking discoveries for theoretical or industrial application, but it's clear Russ is a visionary. Mercer is littered with strange pieces of tech, from retro-futuristic weather vanes (or maybe they're geothermal collectors?) arrayed across a local pond to huge tractors that float, "Star Wars" like, on invisible cushions of anti-gravity. Russ' wheelhouse seems immense: As he tells Cole — who, it turns out, is his grandson — Russ is in the business of hearing what others declare to be impossible, and then creating machines that defy those declarations.

If that seems a little too generalized, take it in stride as part of the show's overall sensibilities. Mercer is a town that seems to exist in a nostalgia-drenched past situated somewhere between the 1960s and the early 1980s, though contemporary concerns like climate change are glancingly addressed, and the technology of this nether-when drama embodies both the bulky, steel-cast ethos of the 1950s and the sleek, plasticized, lights-encrusted vibe of iModernity.

Hawthorn has based the series on an art book full of fanciful illustrations by Simon Stålenhag (who also serves as an executive producer here, lending his style and eye to the show's visual scheme). The show doesn't just have the multi-directional energy of an anthology program like, say, "The Twilight Zone"; it also has the strength of a unifying authorial hand.

The show's pacing and ethos are similarly consistent, with long shots and pacing that feels sometimes bucolic and sometimes suspenseful. the timeless, yearning quality of the show is enhanced by the score, by Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan; each episode is scored in a haunting, if sometimes slightly sentimental, way.

Halpern's plots do occasionally feel assembled from tropes and twists that are utterly familiar, but each hour does daring, unpredictable things the likes of which only an anthology shows can get away with — and that makes this novel hybrid appealing. "Tales from the Loop" is a showcase for wild yarns, but it also rewards attentive, sequential viewing: There are wheels within wheels here, and the season as a whole achieves a rare sense of cohesion and satisfaction, a greater whole put together, mosaic-like, from somewhat disparate parts.

"Tales from the Loop" is streaming now at Amazon Prime.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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