Retrospective

Netflix's most inscrutable time travel show is still worth puzzling out

A gamble on a twisty mind-bending thriller paid off in spades.

It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when a Netflix original series release was a big deal. Nowadays, Netflix cranks out low-budget movies and shows left and right to fill out its vast catalog, but in 2017, an original release was a special occasion that would help define Netflix.

The streamer started out strong with House of Cards and Stranger Things, which gave it the monster genre hit it needed. But another, less discussed series not only helped secure Netflix’s future in original programming, but helped shape sci-fi television going forward.

Dark, released in 2017, was Netflix’s first German-language series. It was a big bet for Netflix: While the streamer already had other non-English series, there was nothing as demanding as this. Created by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, Dark follows a young boy named Jonah as he investigates the mysterious death of his father and the disappearance of children in the sleepy town of Winden.

Every revelation only makes the mystery more nuanced, and by the end of the three-season run the show covers time travel, generational trauma, parallel universes, and bootstrap paradoxes.

One word to sum up Dark would be complicated. Countless characters jump across generations like it’s no big deal, characters become their own grandparents, multiple versions of the same character have conversations, and quantum physics becomes a major plot point. It’s a show where you want to keep a pen and paper handy.

But, much like previous “complicated” series such as J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof’s “mystery box” show Lost, the complex plot is absolutely worth wrapping your head around. The huge ensemble cast of Dark gives it an epic scale, and the slow-burn pace never becomes too overwhelming.

Aesthetically, Dark feels timeless. The gray-tinged color grading and use of contrast are visually compelling, and there’s a recurring motif of every episode ending with a montage over a song. At first, it feels corny, but for a series where you often watch multiple episodes in a sitting, you soon realize it’s a great way to provide structure.

Dark’s mystery quickly turns into a metaphysical rabbit hole.

In 2022, international streaming media is more popular than ever. Because of Netflix’s global reach, shows like Squid Game and Money Heist capture the attention of people worldwide, and even receive major awards that were once limited to American network television. That’s what makes Dark worth revisiting; before non-English media became fully mainstream, it found and kept its audience throughout one of the most complicated plots in television history.

Among sci-fi television as a whole, Dark is a masterclass in how to depict abstract concepts in a way that everyone, no matter their language, can understand. Sci-fi is often about uniting planets, and that’s something Dark did on this one.

Dark is now streaming on Netflix.