Tales From the Loop: Season One

Cole (Duncan Joiner) & Loretta (Abby Ryder Fortson)
"What do you do down there? ... Underground?"
"You know when someone says something's impossible?"
"Yeah."
"I prove it's possible."

If you were to pass through Mercer, Ohio sometime during President Reagan's first term, it would appear unremarkable at first glance.
There's the usual downtown with shops and a tavern and a one-screen movie theater, neighborhoods of old houses and new developments of split-levels and ranches, schools and playgrounds – and a few unusual things: odd little structures tended by maintenance workers in trucks with roof-mounted robotic arms, a lake studded with large weather vanes, and three massive concrete cooling towers dominating the landscape.

Those are facilities of the town's major employer, the Mercer Center for Experimental Physics, an underground research laboratory nicknamed "The Loop." Thanks to the presence of The Loop, and the bleeding-edge science conducted there, Mercer is a place where free-range robots live in the woods, snow sometimes falls up instead of down, the farm tractors ride on anti-gravity units and occasionally disappear into interdimensional vorticies when no one is looking, and nobody thinks any of that is particularly unusual.

What Tales From the Loop does with this setting is like nothing you'd expect.

Tales From the Loop is based on the book (and tabletop RPG) of the same name by Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag. His paintings imagine life in a small Swedish town, the site of a giant underground superconducting supercollider engaged in avant garde physics experiments, as seen through the eyes of a boy growing up there in the 1980s. The images juxtapose ordinary things like ranch houses and Volvos and gasoline stations with fantastic structures, whimsically-decorated anti-gravity airships, and a dinosaur or two. Writer-creator Nathaniel Halpern changed the setting to Ohio, but otherwise stayed very close to the mood and vision of the original. If you flip through the book after seeing the series, you'll be able to match up individual paintings with the episodes they inspired.

Beth (Alessandra de Sa Pereira) and her father Ed
(Dan Bakkedahl) playing with the family robot.

This sounds like the setup for something along the lines of Stranger Things or Scooby-Doo or The Goonies: a plucky group of kids stumbles across something scary and mysterious, and, through a series of wacky escapades and madcap hijinks, save the town (or the universe) from (choose one or more of the following) (a) an eldritch abomination, (b) invading space monsters, (c) a mad scientist dabbling in things man was never meant to know, (d) a greedy land developer, and/or (e) the government's cover-up of any one or more of the above.

Tales From the Loop goes in a very different direction. There's no over-arching existential threat, no specific quest to solve a specific scientific mystery. An artifact or an inexplicable event will set up or propel an episode, but the episode will always focus on the human beings involved rather than the technology.

Teenager Jakob (Daniel Zolghadri), about
to do a risky thing on impulse, without
considering the consequences.
Human nature is immutable, and even in a science fiction world where giant autonomous robots are part of the scenery and time and space can be altered by the flip of a switch, people will still be people. Children will still have to grow up and figure out their place in life as they do. (They will also jump on the bed when Mom isn't looking.) Teenagers will do risky things on impulse, without considering the consequences. Parents will argue over child-rearing and money troubles. Workaholics will spend too much time at the office. People will die from incurable diseases. It will still be possible that a careless word or selfish act can destroy a relationship, or that the people you look up to might disappoint you. That guy in the chair next to you at the barbershop, the one with the awesome steampunk artificial arm, may well be looking back on his life with regret over roads not taken and apologies unmade.

These human-scaled stories are told mostly from a child's perspective, at a human-scaled pace. I wouldn't call it slow, exactly; the scenes don't drag, and the plots develop at just the right speed, but it feels slower than it is. This impression is bolstered by the ethereal acoustic score by Philip Glass, and gorgeous cinematography that deliberately invokes Mr. Stålenhag's art style.

The show is structured as a near-anthology, as if every episode of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror took place in a shared fictional universe. A character who shows up in the background of an episode may be the focus of the next episode, and events in one episode have effects in later ones. To the extent there's a central character with a central story arc that ties the whole season together, it's Cole Willard (Duncan Joiner), a 10-year old boy whose parents and grandfather are scientists employed by The Loop. He appears in the first episode, "Loop," where he tries to help a little girl named Loretta (Abby Ryder Fortson) find her mother. His story arc plays out over three more episodes, "Transpose," "Echo Sphere," and "Home." The others are more stand-alone, though there is at least some connection between all eight.

"See?  There's nothing to be afraid of."
Episode Titles:

1.1 "Loop"
1.2 "Transpose"
1.3 "Stasis"
1.4 "Echo Sphere"
1.5 "Control"
1.6 "Parallel"
1.7 "Enemies"
1.8 "Home"

Also in The Loop

"Loop" gives a nice little shout-out to Tales' Swedish origin: Loretta's mother is Swedish, and there's a delightful scene of Loretta dancing around her bedroom to a Swedish pop song playing on her phonograph: "Rumba i Engelska Parken" by Owe Thörnqvist.

Far too many films and series are written such that the child characters act like miniature adults, doing un-childlike things and spouting age-inappropriate snark. Tales From the Loop avoids this trap. The child characters are written realistically, and the child actors act like real children.

The '80s time frame is reflected in small details like the cars on the street, vinyl records, dial telephones, and IBM PCs with dual 5.25" floppy drives and 16-color graphics. However, the show avoids the temptation to pound home the time period with a sledgehammer by festooning the kids' bedroom with Star Wars posters, slapping Reagan and Mondale bumper stickers on every K-car that drives by, and having every radio tuned to a top-40 station playing Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper singles.

There is no town named Mercer in Ohio. There is a Mercer County in western Ohio, along the Indiana border, which could be the location of Mercer if it actually existed. If that were the case, the lake we see in nearly every episode would be Grand Lake St. Marys.

Though Tales is not effects-driven, there are some special effects shots –including about two thirds of the episode "Stasis" – that are simply magnificent. However much the production company paid the VFX crew, they got a bargain.

There's a passage-of-time montage in the final episode that is a masterpiece of wordless story-telling.

Tales From the Loop is one of those shows that rewards repeated viewings and careful attention to minor details and backgrounds.

Quotes

"Your dad. I saw his arm."
"I know, it's weird. He takes it off at night and plugs it in the wall."

"Sometimes things are special because they don't last."

"Does it feel like a long time ago?"
"Blink of an eye."

Conclusion

If you're looking for epic space battles with lots of stuff blowing up, this is not the series for you. But science fiction is more than just space opera. If you want stories about people that touch your heart and tap into the universal truths of the human condition, I recommend that you spend some time in Mercer, Ohio.

Four out of four free-range robots.

Baby M has deer pass through his yard now and then, but no robots so far.

Parental Guidance Note: The first episode, "Loop," is a story about 10-year old kids told from their perspective, and is completely suitable for 10-year old kids to watch. This is not true of the entire series, however. The other episodes in Cole's story arc ("Transpose," "Echo Sphere," and "Home") are reasonably family-friendly, as is "Control." "Enemies" has some frightening sequences that might be too intense for younger viewers. "Stasis" and "Parallel" deal with "mature themes" and have some visuals that are nowhere close to family-friendly. I would not show those two to anyone under 16. As with all such things, use your own judgment, since you know your kids better than anyone else.

2 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Baby M, I've only seen the first episode and I wasn't sure I'd continue, but this piece makes me interested in seeing more. Good job.

Anonymous said...

Tales from the Loop, at least for the first three episodes I’ve watched so far, appears surprisingly dark in tone - where people do some horrible things to each other (callousness abounds). It is, however, visually beautiful and while fairly slow paced, doesn’t drag. It does have some moments of levity as well (I’ll never look at a main road the same again!).