Tales From the Loop by Nathaniel Halpern
Back in 2013, Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag released a series of paintings that depicted the pastoral Swedish countryside dotted with robots, hovercraft, and the ruins of advanced, even alien-looking technology. Stålenhag’s blend of the mundane and the extraordinary, combined with a dose of retro-futurism and ‘80s nostalgia, instantly captured the imagination of many and led to several art books and a role-playing game.
It was only a matter of time, though, until Stålenhag’s artwork would make the transition to the screen. Enter Amazon, who bought the adaptation rights to Tales From the Loop and immediately went into production using a script by Nathaniel Halpern (Legion). The result is a series that transforms Stålenhag’s evocative artwork into an equally evocative collection of eight episodes.
Tales From the Loop is set in the sleepy town of Mercer, Ohio, which exists on top of a vast underground facility simply called the Loop. Although Mercer’s existence seems dependent on the Loop, with many of its citizens working there, the series never really explains what the Loop actually is, does, or how it came to be. The most explanation we get are vague lines about how it’s intended to make the impossible possible or explain the universe’s mysteries.
Even so, the Loop’s influence is everywhere: giant smokestacks loom ominously in the distance, robots wander through the surrounding forest, and strange devices and architecture dot the fields and countryside. And then there’s the equally bizarre phenomena: a child’s house slowly disintegrates into the air before her eyes while a man sees strange holes suddenly appearing and disappearing in his field. None of this seems to particularly phase anyone, though. But while such devices and phenomena may be mundane and commonplace to Mercer, that doesn’t mean they don’t impact its populace.
Two teens discover a device in the woods that allows them to swap bodies. At first, it’s thrilling to experience each other’s lives, but things quickly go awry when one of them doesn’t want to return to his body. A girl uses a device to freeze time so that she can experience the thrill of a new love forever, only to find that nothing perfect can last forever. A man buys a robot to defend his family but his desire to protect ironically proves to be a bigger threat to their safety. A lonely man is mysteriously transported to a alternate reality where he meets his doppelgänger and his doppelgänger’s handsome boyfriend, leading to a truly awkward love triangle.
If there’s one underlying theme to Tales From the Loop, it’s that no technology or phenomena — regardless of how wondrous, bizarre, or fantastical it is — can ultimately prevent human nature from manifesting itself, for good or ill. Mercer may seem like a midwestern utopia, but its populace still wrestles with jealousy, bitterness, fear, loneliness, doubt, and ultimately, death. And no enigmatic facility or bizarre phenomena can ever hope to fix those things.
To the series’ credit, it never tries to pound that theme — or any theme, for that matter — into its viewers’ heads. Rather, it opts for a “show, don’t tell” approach to storytelling. But this, combined with some truly understated acting by nearly every cast member, also leads to a sense of pacing that some viewers will find interminable.
When reviews of Tales From the Loop began surfacing, one criticism I saw was that the series looked good, but there was no “there” there. For example, Polygon’s Charlie Hall criticized the series as “confusing merely for confusion’s sake” and wrote that it “lacks a sense of progression, internal logic, or a desire to reveal more of its underlying chaos as time goes by. Instead, it just sort of meanders.”
While I would argue that the series does contain more internal logic than Hall gives it credit for, I don’t necessarily disagree with his claims that it lacks “a desire to reveal more of its underlying chaos” or that it meanders. But those qualities that Hall decries are ultimately what I ultimately found most appealing about Tales From the Loop.
Put another way, if you come to Tales From the Loop looking for something akin to Stranger Things or The X-Files — i.e., scrappy characters confronting otherworldly phenomena, solving a grand mystery, or unmasking some nefarious conspiracy — you’ll almost certainly be disappointed. There are no action sequences, no climactic confrontations, no great evil or conspiracy to be ultimately vanquished. There’s no “mystery box” that will be eventually unwrapped, opened up, and figured out.
Rather, what you’ll experience is most definitely meandering, but also contemplative, elegiac, and deeply (though not oppressively) melancholy. But even as it meanders, Tales From the Loop does gain emotional heft from its self-contained episodes building on top of each other. A character lurking in the background of one episode might become a later episode’s protagonist while earlier events gain new significance and clarity in subsequent episodes. In this way, the series suggests another theme: that everyone and everything in Mercer is connected together by the Loop, though rarely in obvious ways.
The series’ excellent production design also adds to its tone. Stålenhag’s artwork has a distinct ‘80s feel but Tales From the Loop feels more timeless. Characters live in Mid-Century Modern houses and wear clothing that evoke the ‘50s and ‘60s, drive cars from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and work on computers that look like they came from a Radio Shack circa 1983. This, combined with some episodes’ non-linear structures and chronological jumps, creates a feeling that Mercer is somehow “unstuck” in time, which only adds to the episodes’ otherworldliness. Add to that gorgeous cinematography, special effects that are all the more effective for their subtlety, and Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan’s atmospheric score, and you have a viewing experience that — if you’re like me — proves incredibly engrossing.
One of the show’s producers summed up the series’ approach thusly: “I love The Twilight Zone, and a lot of other shows [like it], but coming to the answer is a great part of what the pleasure is, whereas here it’s exactly the opposite. You’re not meant to come to the answer; you’re meant to live with the fact you don’t have the answer, and what does that mean?” If that kind of ambiguity, that willingness to leave some questions unanswered and mysteries unresolved, sounds appealing to you, then I think you’ll find a trip to Mercer, Ohio very fascinating and rewarding.