Possibly the best successor to The Twilight Zone dropped its first season in 2020. Taking its inspirations from retrofuturist paintings by Simon Stålenhag, the show gives us T-Zone plots with a modern sensibility, a recurring cast, and a world where one bizarre occurrence remains in continuity when the next one occurs. It's a brilliantly-made, thought-provoking depiction of a town where, one suspects, insurance premiums must be terrifically high.
Most of the time, we're in an alternate 1980s, where Mercer, Ohio hosts a facility known colloquially as "the Loop." With access to an unexplained thingamabob of unknown origin, the operation, in the words of its founder, attempts to make "the impossible" happen. Occasionally, we find ourselves in the town during other decades. In any time, residents regularly find themselves encountering the impossible and dealing with its consequences.
A dream-collection of directors and a nearly-perfect cast bring Stålenhag and writer Nathaniel Halpern's fever-dreams to life. Tales from the Loop is one of the best acted, best-directed, and best-looking SF series in television history.
Despite the obvious antecedents, Tales from the Loop feels different from what has gone before. That said, the episodes feature many familiar SF and literary elements. One makes beguiling use of a premise that has appeared, among other places, in an episode of the original Star Trek. "Transpose" explores the effects of a freaky body swap; it's far from the first story to go there. "Enemies" revisits Frankenstein but really, what SF series doesn't? The final episode, meanwhile, makes effective use of an ancient, mythic trope.
Of course, the stories use the speculative elements to explore human nature. In "Stasis," some young people discover the ability to alter time. The episode follows through with the practical, moral, and ethical implications of that ability. In "Control," a man decides to protect his family at all costs. His fanaticism, coupled with advanced tech he barely understands, has disastrous consequences.
Effects and CGI have been fully realized and integrated. I stopped thinking about them and simply saw them as a part of the story. It's clear, however, that someone obviously had fun assembling technological odds and ends into retrofuturistic devices.
I accept the magical technology and remain unbothered by it, even in cases such as "Stasis," where it raises practical questions about the relevant physics. Individually, the various devices function as both metaphor and instigators of interesting tales that explore humanity and society. Cumulatively, however, we're left with questions about why, exactly, the Loop leaves so many derelict pieces of dangerous, reality-warping tech around where people can stumble over them and cause serious trouble. Would they not find a better solution to the problem posed in "Enemies"? How about a warning sign, if not an actual guard, on a certain dangerous location in the woods? Impossible tech I can handle. Implausible human behavior, especially in a show that often explores human behavior so thoughtfully, presents a problem.
I consider the first and final few episodes the strongest. The earliest ones have the advantage of standing alone, more-or-less. The last few draw effectively on continuity. The middle episodes do not always feel complete, as can be the case in continuity-driven shows. They're chapters, rather than complete stories. The finale, directed by Jodie Foster, brilliant and heartbreaking, may be one of the most bewildering hours in television history. I immediately knew I would have to rewatch it. It leaves lingering questions, but it brings the series to some kind of conclusion.
And, despite lingering questions, it may really be the conclusion. Even if Season Two materializes, Halpern has suggested it may go in an entirely different direction.
The Loop has unlocked a door where many stories might be found.
Writer: Nathaniel Halpern. Inspired by the art of Simon Stålenhag.
Directors: Mark Romanek, So Yong Kim, Dearbhla Walsh, Andrew Stanton, Tim Mielants, Charlie McDowell, Ti West, Jodie Foster.
Rebecca Hall as Loretta
Abby Ryder Fortson as Young Loretta
Jonathan Pryce as Russ Willard
Daniel Zolghadri as Jakob
Duncan Joiner as Cole
Paul Schneider as George Willard
Emjay Anthony as teenage George
Jane Alexander as Klara
Tyler Barnhardt as Danny Jansson
Ato Essandoh as Gaddis
Christin Park as Stacey
Nicole Law as May
Leann Lei as Xiu
Dan Bakkedahl as Ed
Lauren Weedman as Kate
Alessandra de Sa Pereira as Beth
Danny Kang as Ethan
Dominic Rains as Lucas
Jon Kortajarena as Alex
Brian Maillard as Kent
Elektra Kilbey as Alma
Shane Carruth as middle-aged Cole
Jodi Lynn Thomas as twentysomething Klara
Stefanie Estes as Sarah the Teacher
Robert Nahum Allen as Logan the Bartender
SciFiQuest 3021: The Quest From the Black Lagoon