A hopeful vision for a hopeless age
Amazon’s Tales from the Loop is the best science fiction show I’ve seen in years. Maybe that’s because it’s not quite science fiction. It gives the viewer no convoluted explanations of the world-altering mechanism that drives it, no mumbo-jumbo that sounds enough like something you misunderstood in physics class to seem plausible.
Tales from the Loop presents a world and its facts, and the characters that have to contend with them. It compares in that respect to Ursula K. LeGuin’s so-called Hainish Cycle, though here it’s not some ancestral alien race responsible for the creation of the society at hand: it’s one man, Russ (the ever-compelling Jonathan Pryce), and the mysterious buried lab he’s made, the Loop. From it and its emanations come all sorts of inexplicable phenomena. For the most part, the characters just live with them: it’s from Underground. The Loop is where most everybody goes to work after high school, whether they like it or not. Why question what puts bread on the table?
Based loosely on an art book by Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, the series comprises eight more or less interwoven episodes. There are through-lines, but they don’t exist to push a single story from point to point. The characters drive the show. The first episode follows a girl, Loretta (Abby Ryder Fortson), seemingly pulled from her time into another. When we at last understand what becomes of her, it’s not so important how or why it happened, but what she, as a grown woman (played by the excellent Rebecca Hall), makes of it—and has made of herself since then, for good or ill, and how that has affected those she loves.
It’s a humanistic approach, in which people’s reactions to their uncanny situations are more significant than the situations themselves. It’s not so much the fact that two teenage boys discover a spherical pod in the woods that allows them to trade bodies: it’s what they decide to do with that power. That, and what Tales from the Loop reveals about their respective lives as things play out.
The nebbish (Daniel Zolghadri) may be preoccupied equally with a cute girl who won’t even talk to him and with popping an intransigent zit, but his grandfather runs the Loop, so he has a good job ahead of him. The Casanova (Tyler Barnhardt) may be popular and good-looking, but his grades have doomed him to a life splitting rock in the local quarry. Their choices form one of the show’s recurrent threads, crossing over with the story told in the first episode. As it tends to be in science fiction, time is fluid, with an almost Biblical sense that one’s actions have ramifications that extend through generations, from the first episode to the last (which, by the way, Jodie Foster directs).
In the only episode that truly stands alone, a lonely security lab guard (Ato Essandoh) tinkers with a broken levitating tractor and gazes longingly at the photo he found in it, of a handsome man playing piano. When he gets the thing running, he’s warped into an alternate dimension, where he meets the object of his affection—but also another version of himself, his beloved’s lover. They all discuss this strange occurrence, but just figure it’s because of something Underground. That settled, the story becomes one of moral choice: what would you do if presented with everything you thought you wanted? Would you go so far as to betray yourself? The episode doesn’t necessarily handle these questions with much subtlety or sophistication, but at least it goes so far as to present them. It pushes its grass-is-always-greener message a little hard, but that makes it anomalous among the other episodes.
As a whole, Tales from the Loop lets its messages come through by understatement. That goes along with its overall feel. The setting is a lived-in small town, almost feudal in its social structure, surrounded by stubble fields and overgrown woods. The phones are mostly rotaries, but there are robots you can control via a pair of well-worn gloves. Even the mysterious Loop complex, source of the wonders that feed the plot, is all tube monitors and dirty concrete. There are few, if any, orchestral swells in the soundtrack telling you how to feel about what you’re seeing: it’s mostly subdued piano and recorder and strings, courtesy of composer Philip Glass (in his first television score). Unlike its most obvious predecessor, The Twilight Zone, there’s not much in this show that’s going to manipulate you into reacting to it one way or another.
That’s what makes it brilliant. In contrast to other current science fiction shows, it creates a world where human decisions matter. Take for instance Devs or Westworld, each of which falls into some version of determinism. Both shows feature an all-seeing computer that reduces humanity to bits of data, so much so that in Devs even the one choice beyond the computer’s reach leads to the literal reduction of two personalities to zeros and ones. They don’t seem to mind: better conscious simulacra than dead. The shows’ assassinations, international intrigue, and techie slickness are fun to look at, but they amount to no more than a gloss over a misanthropic tableau. Tales from the Loop is a show about people grappling with the implications of technology, not about people becoming indistinguishable from technology. Watch it if you want a little help rekindling your hope for humankind.