What’s The Show? Tales From The Loop
What’s It All About, JG? Good question. It is, technically, a science-fiction series which is based on the artwork of Simon Stålenhag, a Swedish artist who specialises in painting largely bucolic, slightly old-fashioned landscapes into which technology intrudes. It’s straightforward retro-futurism, in other words, and if a series of paintings sounds like an unlikely basis for a sci-fi show it nevertheless finds a way to work. Across eight episodes we encounter the inhabitants of Mercer, Ohio who live near “The Loop”, a hazily-defined piece of technology that allows the impossible to happen. The series explores the characters of the town in separate but overlapping stories, sometimes connecting with other characters or plots, sometimes not. The series is utterly uninterested in building either traditional arc-based narratives or technobabble science-y explanations for the events that occur, instead investing in its characters and what they go through as a result of events or occurrences caused by The Loop. If that all sounds odd – it is.
Why Did You Give It A Go? It sounded like an interesting proposition – nothing more than that, really.
Is It Any Good? It’s fucking great! But don’t go into it expecting anything even remotely like a traditional science-fiction story or series, because it’s not that at all. It’s a profoundly oblique series, which uses sci-fi trappings as nothing more than that – trappings, which exist to allow an interrogation of the characters and their situations. Everything is extremely slow-paced and considered, every shot lingered on and posed. A few early episodes faintly recall either The Twilight Zone (original flavour) or Black Mirror in that there’s a loose moral parable at work but it’s also absolutely nothing like either of those shows and actually has closer alignment with H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, where the titular mechanism was nothing more than a convenience to allow the exploration of society that Wells really wanted to talk about.
An early episode deals with one of the hoariest clichés in sci-fi, body swapping, as two teenage boys exchange bodies thanks to a rusted old iron ball that looks like an old, hollowed out naval mine, but the approach and genuine thoughtfulness given to the characters and what it would actually mean to them breathes fresh life into even the stalest of concepts. In another episode a schoolgirl finds and repairs a device which freezes time and allows her to be alone with her boyfriend, but is ultimately forced to confront what the word “forever” means when it really could mean that, rather than being the throwaway words of a lovelorn teenager. Throughout the series, innocence and a child-like perspective allows the wonders of what happen to be accepted at face value while opening up more than enough scope to interrogate the characters each episode. Every single person on screen, from the most minor character to a major guest spot from Jonathan Pryce in one episode, have a deep sense of interiority and it’s the show’s ability to render these characters as real people that makes the series so successful.
How Many Episodes Did You Watch? All of them. It’s eight episodes long and each one is unique in its own way so all of them deserve to be savoured.
Would You Recommend It? Wholeheartedly. But again, don’t expect a traditional sci-fi show. It doesn’t all “come together” in the final episode, there’s no bafflegab solution as to how The Loop works and there’s no overarching plot. If you go in expecting that you’re going to be very disappointed. If you go in expecting an exquisitely-constructed character piece with a unifying aesthetic that can be both profoundly moving and intensely emotional then you’re in for a treat. And a word about that aesthetic – it’s all lifted from Stålenhag’s work which is intentionally retro, so there’s a lot of mid-century design, technology is mostly pre-internet and even the cars are old Saab’s and Volvo’s to complete that that retro feel. The detail of the world is magnificently well-crafted and make it feel incredibly lived-in and real in a way that’s not often the case in science fiction.
Even the sci-fi elements fit the design aesthetic, with vast, faintly-sinister concrete towers lowering threateningly over the landscape, or robots which looks home-made and assembled from other components – not steam-punk but certainly hand-made. A hollow iron sphere can tell you how long you’ll live. A frozen stream can interrupt the flow of time. It’s all extremely abstract, but the core of the series is always the people. One episode deals with a gay character who fantasises over his ideal man, a photo of someone he’s never met, then gets shunted into a parallel universe and meets him only to confront the reality of who that person is as well as confronting himself – and it’s one of the most straightforwardly brilliant piece of gay television ever, avoiding each and every cliché and again finding new spaces to explore in familiar concepts. There’s some great directors – Jodie Foster helms the season finale with considerable skill and grace, and Charlie McDowell does amazing work with “Parallel”, the gay story. But everyone does amazing work here – Tales From The Loop maybe a low-key series, both in terms of content and its public profile, but it deserves to be discovered and explored because it’s probably the best TV show of 2020 bar none.
Availability – Amazon Prime, who made the series. It’s the best thing they’ve ever done.
Scores On The Doors? 9/10