Tales From the Loop

tals2I can imagine Tales From the Loop proving a divisive series. Its a beautiful, slow, meditative anthology series based on the paintings of Simon Stålenhag, set in a strange alternate universe. Here its a 1970s (or 1980s? It could be either, really) USA in which strange mechanical creations, bizarre technology and weird phenomena seem treated by people as both fantastic and mundane: robots in the woods, strange alien artefacts rusting in the twilight air, snow falling upwards, or houses falling into the sky. Its as glacially paced as the snow and ice that features in a number of the episodes (possibly, the eight episodes span a year of changing seasons), exquisitely photographed and accompanied by a gentle, haunting score by Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan that sounds more Max Richter by way of Johann Johannsson. It sets up a mysterious setting full of questions and refrains from giving any answers- any answers at all, really, which will upset some.

We are in an era of television hinted at by Babylon 5: multi-arc seasons that craft big, epic storylines that tease questions, gradually revealing answers, and often the value or worth of a show is measured by how good those answers and revelations/conclusions turn out to be. Game of Thrones teased a momentous War of Winter for several seasons and tripped over at the end; Westworld seems to be so convoluted in its questions and mysteries that the answers threaten to be even more complex than the original questions. Tales From the Loop seems to be deliberately focused the other way, a simplicity of sorts: always holding back any answers, strictly maintaining the mystery and best of all, refusing to offer any happy endings.

Tales From the Loop is overwhelmingly melancholic and sad. Characters take what they can from their experiences, at best learn something about themselves and others, at worst, well… they stand as confused and lost as us.

tales3So its quite refreshing- that sense of enduring mystery, I mean. If there’s any frustration from sad or confusing endings for each story, well, that’s possibly more from our experiences of being fed satisfying endings in other shows, our laziness of being fed meaning. On the other hand, it could be seen as being incredibly pretentious: individual mileage may vary. On the positive side, it doesn’t seem deliberately oblique for the sake of it: there seems to be a sense of internal logic behind everything, its just being withheld from us rather than deliberately nonsensical. The beauty is the sense of the alien, the unknowable. Also, the grimness of some of it -some characters have ill luck and ill fates- reminds me of how ‘nasty’ fairy-tales, particularly in their original forms, could be. Indeed, one could describe this series as a series of adult fairy-tales with a sci-fi bent.

The best episodes are those that bookend it: the two at the beginning and the two at the end proving the most rewarding. The central four are not without merit, and my issue may be more a matter of not fully engaging with the characters in those. It ensures that the season starts well and ends well, even though it is patently clear that we are no wiser, really, at the end than we were at the beginning. What is the Loop, what is its purpose, why is no Army chief or Government Agent taking it over, why does it all feel seperate from the rest of the world? Do answers really matter?

ales4I like that most of the stories end in open-ended ways, as if they are lacking ‘proper’ endings at all, almost as if the last reels are missing. No doubt this will frustrate some, but I think its really nice, how the episodes seems to end with a sigh rather than a bang. Its nice how background characters we see over a few episodes suddenly come front and centre, and how others lead in one episode and then appear in the background of a scene or enjoy a brief cameo in another, the season drifting forwards and backwards in time… deliberately so, as time often loops with itself in the series, almost a character itself. This is exactly the sort of project I could not imagine a traditional network making, the kind of thing that streaming channels (in this case, Amazon) seem to excel at. I hope we get to a second season next year (or whenever Covid19 permits) as I would love the opportunity to enter this strange spooky world of the Loop again.


3 thoughts on “Tales From the Loop

  1. Matthew McKinnon

    Sorry to comment on two posts back-to-back, like some kind of blog-stalker.

    Did you really like this, then? I… wanted to.
    I watched the first episode, and it did nothing for me. Then it tried, I really did, with the second but I gave up after 15 minutes.

    It was just too insubstantial, too nothing. The stories felt like they’d been padded out from a tight 25 minute Twilight Zone script. The fashionable photography and design and music felt so cool and contemporary as to be instantly dated. And the first two are amongst the best episodes? Oh.

    I’ll stick to the books, I think.

    1. I tried a bit of an experiment with this show, as I watched two episodes at a time every Sunday, and wrapped up the last two over two nights midweek this week as I’m off work with a little extra time to kill. The gradual watch seemed to help- I understand where you’re coming from, as I wrote in my post its clearly a divisive show, and I wasn’t without frustrations by the midpoint, but yeah, I stuck with it. I liked the mood, the pacing and the music… sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise, but from a storytelling perspective I appreciated it trying to tell something differently, regards open-ended storylines and not telegraphing things. There were some genuine surprises with characters not getting the outcomes one would expect: for instance, in a later episode, a character gets slipped into another alternate reality and meets his other self, who’s having a better time of it, and usually in these things ‘our’ character finds a way back home all the wiser for the experience, but in this one, he’s trapped on the other side and doesn’t get back.

      Another example: that second episode you saw the start of, when the two characters swap bodies- they don’t swap back: one of them refuses to do it, preferring his ‘new’ life and when the other tries to reverse it, it goes wrong and he switches with one of those mute robots we’ve seen in the woods. The human body dies leaving him trapped in the robot, and usually you think, they’ll figure some way of returning things to normal somehow, but in the last episode of the series the robot gets damaged and fails, ‘killing’ the lad trapped inside it.

      I agree not everything works, and the pacing does leave episodes feeling long sometimes, but I think if they had shorter half-hour episodes it may have left them feeling rushed instead, and I know which I prefer…

      Perhaps its one of those shows where the second season might be stronger, ‘fixing’ issues of the first season. I’d like to hope so.

  2. Pingback: The 2020 List: May – the ghost of 82

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