Spend a few minutes scrolling through Netflix and you'll find plenty of science fiction TV shows and movies that paint technology with foreboding dread. The great paradox of the streaming age is that no matter how sophisticated access to media has become — my sister and her husband can stream YouTube on their refrigerator — our binge favorites regularly tell us to fear technology's breakneck pace.
But Nathaniel Halpern, the showrunner of the new Amazon Prime series Tales From the Loop streaming on April 3, has had enough of sci-fi's "doom and gloom."
"There are certainly no shortage of stories that feed into our anxiety and fear of technology," Halpern tells Inverse. "I wanted to go in a different direction. Go back to the human endeavor and wonder that goes with discovery and creation. Re-inject that aspect of the genre, rather than the cautionary tales that the sky is falling."
In Tales From the Loop, a mysterious structure known as "The Loop" lies at the center of a small American town. In sparsely-connected episodes that zoom into the lives of various residents, the power of the Loop is revealed to ordinary people as they are challenged, in their own ways, with what it means to be human.
The series adapts Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag's 2014 collection of science fiction illustrations, also called Tales From the Loop. Like the show, Stålenhag's paintings juxtaposed cutting-edge technology as old, decaying things. In Stålenhag's colorful scenery of rural Sweden (with vivid blue skies, sunlit sand, and lush green grass), children carry sleds with tiny robots; unusual neon skyscrapers penetrate a rainy sky; and families on vacation drive past abandoned machines straight out of an apocalypse blockbuster.
To Stålenhag, it isn't technology he fears — it's ourselves.
"I'm not that worried about the technology," he told Vice in 2018. "I think technology is what's going to save us in the end. I don't believe that we can disconnect and everything will be fine. What's worrying me is people."
Halpern isn't on the same wavelength.
"I do share everyone's anxieties with our current iterations of technology," he says. "I didn't want to bring in [to the show] concerns about the internet, social media, etcetera. At the core, our desire to create things is something to be celebrated and is intriguing."
Despite the differences in both creators, Halpern still studied Stålenhag's work, and sought the same kind of optimism recurring in Stålenhag's artistry.
"I used the paintings as visual prompts," Halpern says on the unusual nature of adapting paintings to TV. "Both emotionally and looking at the scenarios in the paintings and thinking, What is the story here? There's a mood and feeling to Simon's work I wanted to emulate."
A TV writer from Princeton, New Jersey with credits in shows like Legion and Outcast, Halpern found Tales From the Loop hook, about an inexplainable technological structure, as a chance to tell intimate stories about impossible phenomena.
Importantly, the stories are never about how these phenomena works. "It’s not a puzzle show," he says.
“I didn't want to get into how it all works. It is what it is.”
A narrative twist in Episode 1 illustrates what kind of show Tales From the Loop wants to be: Where most narrative plot twists encourage speculation on the nitty-gritty who, what, where, and why of a show's grand mythology, none of that matters in Tales From the Loop.
"The science fiction is there to amplify and support the emotional journey of a character, and not the other way around," Halpern says. "Very often in these types of shows the characters are kind of there to be pulled by the plot."
To say too much would spoil the surprise, but Halpern insists Loop isn't a show where you fuss over lore or dive into supplemental material. Rather, it's what we take away from the revelation that's most important.
"I just wanted to tell a human, emotional story, and the science fiction provides wonder," Halpern says. "I didn't want to get into how it all works. It is what it is. It's not going to be explored in a question and answer session, because each question begets more answers."
That's not to say Halpern and his writers have created careless sci-fi. It's simply going against the synthetic grain. Where shows like Westworld, Black Mirror, Altered Carbon, The Expanse, and more introduce futuristic concepts and ideas, often in the backdrop of some looming apocalypse, Tales From the Loop sought something less dismal. "I don’t really need something to tell me how horrible something is," Halpern says.
“It’s not sentimental, there's hard-earned truths.”
"My ambition with this [show] was telling emotional, poignant stories that could give you comfort and hope. It’s not sentimental, there's hard-earned truths. My hope was that people could watch this and think, 'Yeah, that's how that feels,' and take comfort in that versus the doom and gloom."
Adds Halpern, "There's more than enough of that going around."
Tales From the Loop will begin streaming on Amazon on April 3.