The first episode of Amazon’s Tales From The Loop opens with Russ Willard (Jonathan Pryce), founder of the clandestine government facility known as the Mercer Center For Experimental Physics, addressing an unseen audience about the nature of the center’s work and its impact on the lives of the people who surround it. “Everyone in town is connected to the Loop in one way or another,” he says. “And you will come to know many of their tales… in time.” It’s the kind of speech that would feel right at home at the top of an episode of The Twilight Zone, albeit perhaps more somber and intimate than anything Rod Serling might have delivered in his time.
Based on Simon Stålenhag’s 2014 art book of the same name, Tales From The Loop centers on the fictional town of Mercer, a sleepy little burg built atop a massive subterranean particle accelerator known colloquially as the Loop. The series follows several of the town’s residents, including Russ’ own family, as their lives are irrevocably touched and altered by the miraculous wonders made possible through the Loop’s existence. The eight-episode series, produced by Amazon Studios and set to premiere via Prime’s streaming service on April 3, is helmed by showrunner and Legion co-writer Nathaniel Halpern and director/executive producer Mark Romanek. The production also features creator Simon Stålenhag himself, who serves as co-executive producer for the series.
For the past seven years, Stålenhag has amassed something of a cult following for his pastoral sci-fi paintings across the internet. A concept designer and author by trade, Stålenhag drew from his own experiences growing up on the rural outskirts of Stockholm to create an alternate 1980s version of Sweden where resurrected dinosaurs, abandoned robots, and paint-chipped hovercrafts exist among the remains of a once-thriving society now fallen into disrepair. The world of Stålenhag’s paintings feel as though it hovers in that uncanny space where memory becomes indiscernible from imagination: a world seen through the eyes of a child witnessing something too colossal and strange to fit neatly into the shape of words.
The task of adapting a collection of illustrations, let alone one that relies heavily on aesthetics and mood in lieu of an explicit narrative, into an eight-hour television series comes with its own unique challenges, as you might imagine. Fortunately, if the three episodes made available for review (“Loop,” “Echo Sphere,” and “Parallel”) are any indication, fans of the original art book’s understated approach to world-building have nothing to worry about. Tales From The Loop doesn’t waste time trying to explain the history of Mercer or how it diverges from our own; it simply is, and anything in the way of an explanation is left solely to the audience’s interpretation. The show’s production design and cinematography, courtesy of Philip Messina (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay) and Jeff Cronenweth (The Social Network) is superb, recreating Stålenhag’s original compositions with a scrupulous attention to detail and fidelity to the source material. (Well, sans the dinosaurs.) The score is a wealth of beautiful orchestral violin and piano pieces composed by Paul Leonard-Morgan (Limitless) and the inimitable Philip Glass. Halpern and Co. may have traded the Swedish countryside for the agrarian suburbs of Ohio, but Tales From The Loop nevertheless retains that characteristic spark of child-like wonder and melancholy that made Stålenhag’s work so unforgettable to begin with.
You’d be forgiven if you glanced at any of the pre-release material for Tales From The Loop and dismissed it as another ’80s sci-fi nostalgia riff à la Stranger Things. You won’t find any plucky adolescents chasing demogorgons or furiously peddling their bikes to outrace shadowy g-men here, though. If anything, Tales From The Loop feels more reminiscent of the somber and more considered tone of Netflix’s other sci-fi thriller, the oft-forgotten series Dark, emphasizing the personal stories and arcs of its assorted characters instead of a barrage of throwbacks and visual nods to the sci-fi films of yesteryear.
For all the things that define the visual look of Tales From The Loop— the varnished wood accents and neon signage of mid-century Americana, the rusted remains of space-age tech strewn across the lawns of suburban homes, the seismic thrumming of some immense and unseen power beneath Mercer’s placid surface—the strength of its performances make up the bulk of the show’s lasting appeal. Jonathan Pryce is magnetic in every scene he’s in as Russ Willard, elder steward of the Loop and shepherd of the impossible—a man who believes in the possibility of anything, save for a higher power. Rebecca Hall is equally captivating in her role as Russ’ daughter-in-law Loretta, whose brusque and distant demeanor belies a quiet inner sadness searching for validation. Although the portrayal of Paul Schneider (Parks And Recreation) as Russ’ estranged son George feels scant, his presence is nonetheless evident through his and Russ’ mutual connection in the form of his youngest son Cole, played by Duncan Joiner (Waco). Ato Essandoh (Altered Carbon) plays Gaddis, a security guard for the Mercer, which stands out as one of the series’ most affecting performances. And the role of Abby Ryder Fortson (Ant-Man And The Wasp) as a young girl who befriends Cole while searching for her estranged mother is brief but heart-wrenchingly memorable.
Each episode of Tales From The Loop plays out like a modern fable set in a world both impossible and not unlike our own. At the crux of each is a theme: Motherhood, mortality, and loneliness, with each in turn orbited by a barrage of questions like electrons dancing at the borders of an atom. These questions dabble less in the realm of speculative “what-if” fiction and instead feel like peeks into the private corners of the human experience. How do you avoid repeating the same mistakes as your parents? How do you console a child confronted with the reality of death? How do you learn to love and live with yourself, let alone with other people? “Turns out… not everything in life makes sense,” Loretta tells a character through tears.
We’re told that the Loop was created with the intention of exploring and answering life’s greatest questions. Tales From The Loop understands that the answers to these questions don’t necessarily fit into the shape of words, but are revealed simply through the act of living itself. It’s an uncommonly rich series, one with a tremendous amount of heart, and one that, if you’re willing to accept it, might even touch your own.