Tales from the Loop
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted July 23, 2020
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The eight episodes of this series premiered April 3 on Amazon Prime. I didn't start watching until late June, but took my time between episodes rather than binge it, not only because each deserved contemplation, but also to accommodate viewing other shows and reading. It is based on the book of the same name by Simon Stålenhag, which I don't have (yet), and have only seen the preview at Amazon (click the cover image there for a Look Inside), and a Google image search. It is set in Stålenhag's native Sweden, depicting the eerie atmosphere of life in and around a town above an underground particle accelerator. The categories in which it is listed on Amazon include Alternate History Science Fiction, Post-Apocalyptic SF, and Conceptual Art. There is brief text describing the various artifacts depicted, but it is primarily an art book.
The series is set in Mercer, Ohio, in and around the Mercer Center for Experimental Physics. It's supposedly in the 1980s, but there is a timelessness about everything, and many of the vehicles and some of the tech look more late 60s/early 70s. As in the book, there are remnants of past experiments littering the landscape, some in ruins, some still partially functional. Without reading the book I can't say for sure, but I think the series' creator, Nathaniel Halpern, might say he used the images to inspire his stories, rather than directly adapting specific text. There is no word yet on whether there will be a second season, but the premise is ripe for many other stories. It's possible other characters would be featured in the future, since it could contain both prequel and sequel scenes. Most, but not all, of the episodes revolve around the members of one family, the patriarch being Russ (Jonathan Pryce), the head of MCEP. I need to watch this again soon to clarify a few things, but if I'm not mistaken, his wife Klara (Jane Alexander) was not a scientist, had no position at MCEP, but both their son George (Paul Schneider) and his wife Loretta (Rebecca Hall) are employed there. Loretta later succeeds Russ as head of the project. George and Loretta's sons, Jakob (Daniel Zolghadri) and Cole (Duncan Joiner), also feature prominently. I can't recall any mention of the family surname, and only one character, a friend of Jakob's, is given a last name in the credits at IMDb. Many of the characters are portrayed by other actors in flashback, or flash-forward sequences. The Loop not only refers to the circular track of the particle accelerator, but also to the fact that there are many loops in both time and space, and that begins in the first episode.
Early on, Cole asks his grandfather what he does at the Loop, to which Russ replies, "When someone says something is impossible, I prove that it's possible." You don't need to know more than that, and while I realize it's not much to go on, to say more would risk spoilers. If you're looking for action this might not be the series for you. It's slow and methodical, concentrating on the characters' emotions rather than being propelled by the plot. More like Twilight Zone instead of Stranger Things, to which it has been compared due to the 80s setting. It has more to do with family and friend connections, the fleeting nature of those connections, the acute awareness of the passage of time. Anticipation, longing, regret, anger, grief, acceptance. Pretty much a microcosm of human existence, sometimes with tech that aids in the search for meaning, or perhaps tech that hinders acceptance of reality. It is episodic in nature, and it's possible you could watch in a different order, but at least with the first viewing you should stick to Halpern's order. The first and final episodes are eerily symmetrical, but the impact of the latter would be lessened if you had skipped the second. Hardly anything is predictable, which led me to a false perception of how Episode 7 would conclude. It wasn't until halfway through that I realized it was set in the past.
I strongly recommend this. All of the acting is good, but subtle, including the kids. Some of the plots are familiar; there's a body-swapping episode, one with a Groundhog Day vibe, another in a parallel world, but each are unique and true to the nature of the characters rather than being re-treads. My highest praise goes to Rebecca Hall. A short sequence in the finale is an encapsulation of those concepts mentioned above, anticipation through acceptance, all played out by facial expressions and body language alone. It will not be the only scenes that will bring a tear to your eye. I was going to include a quote from her too, but I can't find my note, if in fact I did write it down. I couldn't find it while scanning through the finale, so it was either in a different episode, or it's possible I dreamt it. I'll be watching and listening more closely the next time, and if I find it I'll edit this. As I said before, don't expect a fast pace or much action, but do pay close attention to every event, since each casts out ripples of effect that will resonate later. And be careful while crossing the stream.
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