I 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.
So 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?
I 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.