Tales From The Loop is visual poetry in slow motion
Updated: Apr 3, 2020
Subtle. Poetic. Nuanced. Character-driven. Beautiful. Thought-provoking. Unique. These are all words the makers of Amazon’s Tales From The Loop hope that reviewers will be using in their write-ups. Well, I have, okay. They win. There’s little use fighting against it.
You know they want us to use these words because they use most of them in the pre-publicity videos and interviews they’ve been doing for the show, with respected actors like Jonathan Pryce and Jodie Foster gushing about how they’ve never seen anything like this before on TV or film.
The thing is, while Tales From The Loop is all those things, and well worth watching because of them, I also have the slight nagging feeling that it’s all a tad overblown and rather too much in love with itself, as with The Leftovers, another series I admired for its ambitions while finding it difficult to actually love. Plus, both series share a “flog a piano riff within an inch of its life” philosophy when it comes to their scores. If you’re in any doubt that the makers want you to regard this as visual poetry, then veteran US minimalist composer Philip Glass’s insistent keyboards ram the point home on every available occasion. With not an awful lot of subtlety, to be honest.
So what is Tales From The Loop? It’s an eight-episode series based on art books by Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag were phenomenal and richly detailed, showing a snowy, rural town littered with giant sci-fi artefacts. They were images infused with both wonder and an odd sense of ennui and even inspired a role-playing game.
The sci-fi elements in the screen adaptation are more of an exotic backdrop for some very human tales. Small-scale, intensely personal human tales. Reviewers were only sent three episodes, but in each the actual active, plot-driving sci-fi elements are minimal and barely explored. These aren’t stories concerned with how? of the phenomena; they’re concerned with the effects they have on the humans involved.
The series is set in an isolated town which under which lies The Loop. This is a high-tech, subterranean facility built around a mysterious object called the Eclipse, which makes really weird things happen and has affected the technological development of the town above. Detritus and relics of old experiments punctuate the town’s landscape like the decaying corpses of metal dinosaurs. Robots wander the woods, looking forlorn. Tractors hover above fields. Giant hollow spheres have prophetic echoes.
The townspeople have been left weary and languid from years of fruitless research into the Eclipse. They talk in big sci-fi concepts and theories, but the children seem to have cottoned on to the fact that the grown-ups don’t actually have a clue.
Onto the this backdrop, the series paints a series of small, intimate stories. From the three episodes reviewers have been allowed to see, it’s an episodic affair, almost an anthology series, though with ongoing characters popping up in various tales.
There may be more of an arc plot – we’ll know by 3 April when the series drops on Amazon – but you can bet it won’t be concerned with answering questions if there is.
One of the preview episodes concerns a girl who’s mother goes missing; another with a boy who has to come to terms with his grandfather’s approaching death; the third with a very picky homosexual guy who finds that the man of his dreams is already in a relationship. Doesn’t sound like the stuff of The X-Files, does it?
But the exquisite oddness of the brilliantly realised backdrop and the slow, methodical pace, full of lingering shots of actors expressing conveyors belts of emotions across their faces, gives a resonance to these personal tales. There are moments, indeed, when the series reaches powerful levels of visual poetry, even if the all-pervading score occasionally has you wanting to scream, “OKAY! WE GET IT!” (Tellingly, one of the most effective and raw scenes in the three preview episodes – which involves Jonathan Pryce off-screen during a lengthy shot of some shadowy hedges – is achieved with no music at all.)
And yet, for all that, I still came away with a slight feeling of, “Is that it?” It’s great that the series can find beauty and poetry in the mundane. It’s great that it makes the personal feel universal. But I couldn’t help thinking I’d just enjoyed a meal that was full of flavour but lacked protein. There were also moments – luckily few but annoyingly persistent – when the series is too over-mannered, when you can feel the artifice in the storytelling as the stylistic tics take over, or you get the distinct feeling the writers and directors are slapping themselves on the back for how daring they’ve been.
But don’t let me put you off. This is an extraordinary series, well worth watching. The RPG connection and the number of key roles for kids may lead you to expect something like Stranger Things, but this is something much stranger indeed. Few actual kids are going to sit through this, only kids who’ve grown up with the sense of wonder intact.