Rich visuals help keep this slow-burn science fiction going, but the fire keeps flickering out.
Tales from the Loop is a tough one. Time for another review where every compliment feels like a veiled criticism. Based on a series of startling art prints from Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, Tales from the Loop features a loose plot structure that leaps from character to character as the series progresses. The visuals truly grab you, and the rough plot provides plenty of room for the imagination, but as a whole the series struggles feel like more than a thought experiment for much of its run.
Tales from the Loop (2020)
In Mercer, Ohio, every resident’s life is touched by the Loop. The sprawling and mysterious science facility runs underneath the whole town, with giving rise to odd structures that punctuate the banal features of a sleepy Midwestern community. Interacting with those odd artifacts often changes the lives of those who call Mercer home.
Episode 1: Loop.
In a canned introduction speech for the Mercer Center of Science, founder Russ Willard (Jonathan Pryce) claims the facility can probe the very heart of the universe.
In one of the drab houses in town, we meet a single mother and her daughter. The daughter overhears her mother fight with Willard about returning an artifact taken from the loop. So begins her search to understand her mother, the Loop, and what the weird object can do.
The first episode goes a long way to introducing you to the style of Tales from the Loop. Long, slow tracking shots, wide angle tableaus of quiet beauty and slightly threatening technology, haunting music, and and sound-work that leans heavily into ASMR territory. It also introduces you to opaque plots, non-linear stories, and blink-and-you’ll miss them connections between characters.
I found the first episode hard to get through. Not until the very end did the story begin to coalesce out of the fog into a coherent picture. It ended up being a little too tropy sci-fi in nature to really justify the frustrating pace and reticence.
Episode 2: Transpose.
We now follow Jakob, a young boy who was an accidental acquaintance of the little girl from episode 1. Jakob, introspective and artistic, feels trapped by his family’s determination that he enroll at the Loop after graduation. After all, his grandfather is Russ Willard, so the Loop literally runs in the family.
Opposite Jakob is his best friend Danny. Strong, affable, beloved by most of the kids, Danny is everything Jakob is not. Unfortunately, that also extends to his grades: Danny is desperate to escape his poor family’s fate and attend the Loop training school, despite being a lousy student. When both boys discover a pod out in the woods that lets them switch bodies, Danny thinks he’s found a way both boys can get what they want.
Transpose is a much better episode. It feels like it has less world-building to do, so it gets to the (much better) science fiction story at its center much quicker. It also introduces the mechanic of each episode flowing somewhat organically from the last, despite not being a continuation of the previous story. While it is still vague and slow in places, its a much stronger story with a better sci-fi twist.
Episode 3: Stasis.
May finds herself falling out of love with her boyfriend, Jakob. At the end of her high school experience, she wishes she could just capture the feeling of new love and certainty. She gets her wish when she meets an intriguing young man named Ethan, and finds a device that lets them both step outside of time itself.
This episode pushed me over the edge. May is not a likable character, and Ethan is a bit of a blank slate. The time-stopping device is laughably bad science fiction. The pacing in this episode is (I guess suitably?) glacial. All to get expose that the Tales from the Loop is essentially The Monkey’s Paw: people beset by coming-of-age, small-town angst being given their wish and inevitably coming to regret it.
Binge or Purge?: Tales from the Loop.
Tales from the Loop does have enough hooks that it might reel you in. I know I kept giving it second chances after walking away from episodes for days. The cinematography and composition of shots are gorgeous, the sound is lovely, and sometimes the science fiction is decent.
That being said, I found watching it to consistently feel like a chore. I walked away from the first episode about halfway through and didn’t come back for a week. The third episode sorely tempted me to fast forward through nearly all of it. It really does just boil down to each main character finding a magic MacGuffin that grants ill-advised wishes. Once that realization sets in, there’s not really any drive to see more people curse themselves with poor decision making. With bad science fiction a non-starter, you get half-hearted nostalgia for small town Americana that’s done better in recent stuff like The Vast of Night.