Why Tales from the Loop should be your next box set
Laurence Boyce | On 25, May 2020
Sci-fi and genre stories in general can often be predicated on the immense, the melodramatic. “I love you, but we only have 24 hours to save the Earth.” “That’s not a moon, that’s a space station!” In dealing with subjects such as time travel, body-swapping, robotics and parallel worlds, Tales From The Loop is ostensibly a sci-fi show. But it eschews action and melodrama for an altogether much slower and measured approach in which traditional genre tropes are used as a prism for explorations of ageing, grief and death.
Based on the work of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, the show is centred on the town of Mercer, a sleepy slice of Americana that would be unremarkable apart from the fact that it is home to the Mercer Centre For Experimental Physics – known colloquially as “The Loop”. The inhabitants of the town have taken for granted the strange structures that dot the landscape, the robots that inhabit the woods and the often inexplicable things that go on around them. Each episode follows the story of a resident and just how the Loop affects them in untold – and profound – ways.
The first episode sets out the aesthetic for the rest of the series. A young girl, in a difficult relationship with her mother, returns home one day to find her house has disappeared – along with her mother. Wandering around Mercer, she meets young Cole, who tries to help her unravel the mystery of what’s going on. But it’s only when she finally meets Cole’s mother that the enormity of what is going on becomes apparent. While the sci-fi trappings of the show would usually be front and centre of the narrative, here they are mostly sidelined as our protagonists muse on the nature of their fractured family lives. And thus it continues for much of the rest of the series.
Transpose, which sees two characters swap their bodies, becomes an examination of jealousy and unfulfilled expectations. A dimension-hopping character in Parallel deals with unrequited love and loneliness. Tales From The Loop is not interested in the machines that change the world, but the human beings behind them. There is perhaps a certain irony throughout many of the episodes that, while we may have the intelligence to alter the laws of physics, we are still unable to control the mysteries of human behaviour.
Mercer itself has a timeless quality. While it would chiefly seem to be set in the 80s – all rotary telephones and chunky television sets – there’s also a sun-washed 50s feel to everything, with appliance stores and barber shops that are redolent of classic Americana. Coupled with the incongruity of the town’s accoutrements – the aforementioned giant structures and discarded scientific equipment that seemingly lies everywhere – everything has a slightly dislocated feel, adding to the strange ambience the show radiates. This timeless feel is also used a number of times to subvert the narrative and play with our expectations.
Tales from the Loop is undoubtedly beautiful to look at. The show revels in space and empty frames. While it creates a sense of melancholia and loneliness, there is also a sense of freedom and the chance to explore. Shots seem to be constantly trying to be symmetrical, a world attempting to find cohesiveness across the chaos. The sense of beauty and stillness is enhanced by a wonderful score from Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan, a sparse affair of piano and strings. There are also a number of measured and subtle performances with the likes of Jonathan Pryce and Rebecca Hall – whose characters are perhaps some of the more significant throughout this first season – all holding our attention.
But the show’s almost glacial pace can sometimes be its downfall. It often treads the line between the contemplative and the dull, and there are times when it stumbles into the latter. There are points in which the characters – even by the standards of the world the show sets up – act in annoyingly contrived ways, seemingly just to keep things from wrapping up too quickly. And even the most beautiful of long takes and sweeping vistas can become a little trying. Certainly, those bingeing on the show might find it hard going a few episodes in, especially as the show is ostensibly about standalone stories as opposed to an overarching narrative (although there are some characters who pop up in every episode, and the final episodes do tie up and deal with a few narrative loose ends).
If you’re looking for action and adventure, then Tales from the Loop may be the wrong place to look. But those looking for a unique, sideways take on sci-fi with a powerful central message about humanity and the nature of living, then this is a worthwhile watch.
Tales from the Loop is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.