This is a spoiler-free review based on the opening three episodes of Dark.
You could be mistaken for thinking Dark, Netflix’s first German original series, was a parody of prestige television in 2017: the deadly serious tone, the dingy visuals, the puzzle box mystery… the faintly ridiculous title. The first two episodes won’t do much to allay your fears, but a welcome change of pace in Episode 3 hints at better things to come.
In June 2019, Jonas’ (Louis Hofmann) father commits suicide. His parting note is not to be opened until November 4th at 22:13. Fast forward to that day and Jonas returns to school, after an extended absence. The town of Winden is now reeling from another tragedy: the disappearance of a teenage boy, Erik Obendorf. But waste not, want not, and Jonas joins a ragtag group on a quest to find Erik’s drug stash. However, as the clock hands turn ever closer to 22:13, the woods aren’t the safest place to be and, when the group are forced to scatter, young Mikkel is left behind.
If one missing child wasn’t bad enough for police officer Ulrich Nielsen, that the second is his own son brings a new ferocity to his investigation. His findings lead him to the looming nuclear power station at the edge of town. Meanwhile, Jonas feels his father’s call lead him on his own journey and the bizarre clues he uncovers provide a whole new line of questioning. The aftershock of these tragedies extends far beyond these two families, though. Memories of similar events in 1986, when Ulrich brother went missing, are an open wound in the shared memory of this troubled community. Past, present and future risk coming unstuck, as the labyrinthine history of this town begins to fold in on itself.
The 80s have become the nostalgic touchstone de rigueur, thanks, in no small part, to Stranger Things. The comparisons with Netflix’s other missing boy show are inevitable, but the way Dark examines another culture’s nostalgia, while also subverting the loving haze of genre hindsight, is one of the show’s most interesting elements. This is most pronounced in Episode 3, which follows a new set of characters and opens up plenty of possibilities. This is the moment Dark begins to escape its derivative roots and tread its own path.
It also has none of the eye-rolling moments of the opening episodes. It’s the first chapter not to open with a nightmare. It also dials back on the obtuse dialogue, a bane that seems to exist purely to build an atmosphere of confusion. Those missteps aside, it would be wrong not to give Netflix’s show some credit for maintaining a degree of intrigue. Series creator and director Baran bo Odar (best known for this year’s Jamie Foxx vehicle Sleepless) starts twisting and turning the puzzle box from the off and the revelatory plot developments soon flow thick and fast.
Dark melds jumper-wearing Scandi noir with an American nostalgia puzzle. The cascade of characters makes for initially heavy going, but the calmness and acute focus of Episode 3 marks a substantial improvement. Hopefully, that change of pace is a sign of things to come. If the recognisable elements of the first two episodes were a necessary evil to get this show on the road, then so be it.
Dark is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.