In the middle of a pandemic so devastating we can only imagine life to look bleaker when it's over. Watching the new Amazon Prime series Tales From the Loop, streaming April 3, is like taking in a breath of frigid, fresh air. It isn't warm, nor is it comforting, but in its relaxed, slow pace and wide open imagination, the show is a welcome reprieve from everything weighing us down as we stay alone, isolated from those who mean the world to us.
In ways that are not immediately obvious, Tales From the Loop may be one of the most necessary binge-watch escapes of the year as it streams at just the right time.
Best described as an anthology series, Tales From the Loop from showrunner Nathaniel Halpern is perhaps the first television adaptation of paintings. In 2014, Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag published his online illustrations — a visual experiment of apocalyptic sci-fi harmlessly invading scenic rural Sweden — into a book titled Tales From the Loop. The premise is that a giant central machine, called "the Loop," lays at the center of town. For its residents, the Loop makes the impossible become possible.
Out of those paintings comes Amazon's latest original series, Tales From the Loop, chiefly starring Rebecca Hall as a mother with a strange past. After we learn her story in the first episode, her prominence ebbs and flows as background characters take the central focus in their own episodes. A neighborhood kid in Episode 1 becomes the protagonist in Episode 4, while a recurring security guard is the lonely, reality-displaced lead of Episode 6.
Tales From the Loop is an anthology at heart, but it's more accurate to call it a mosaic. All its pieces coalesce into a greater whole than their own parts. Individual episodes may feel lacking, but the collective experience is utterly rewarding.
The show relocates from rural Sweden to an unnamed small American town, one occasionally disrupted by something just a tad nightmarish. A bipedal bot here, hovering structures there — these residents know of and are too familiar with these anomalies as we are with our smartphones. Their origins and purpose are never fully explained (at least not in the screeners made available to the press). But the characters' nonchalance towards these droning monoliths, and the otherwise analog world that define them, makes the world of Loop all the more riveting, oftentimes more so than the characters who inhabit it.
One-third Twilight Zone, one-third Stranger Things, and one-third Welcome to Night Vale, what makes Tales From the Loop unique against peak TV's glut of gritty sci-fi is what lies at its rustic heart: The Loop is an inexplainable alien thing that reveals what makes us human.
The show is almost never concerned with convoluted Loop lore. Who made the Loop? Where did the Loop come from? How does the Loop work? None of that matters next to how the Loop impacts the lucky, or unlucky, people who live near it. There are no world-ending apocalypses, no conniving villains after the Loop's power, or even the Loop acting as some omniscient god. Tales From the Loop is simply about everyday people who are more extraordinary than they could ever imagine.
In its own ineffable way, the relationship between people and the Loop is profoundly reassuring. Tales is not a very happy show — characters suffer tremendous loss, often in painful ways — but there is a comforting affirmation that whatever it is we want, whatever we need, or whatever we desire, we are not alone in seeking it.
Tales From the Loop is virtually the opposite of an H.P. Lovecraft tale. Discovering more about the universe doesn't make us mad; it makes us feel relief.
The show unfortunately never captures the gorgeous serenity of Stålenhag's art — a disappointment, as its promotional posters are again Stålenhag originals — but it does capture the spirit. Just as Stålenhag's human subjects find themselves amiss in front of robots and monoliths, so do these characters. But the show's visual photography never matches up to the strokes of the original artist's brush.
In the end, Tales is a nuclear idea bomb dropped into an ordinary place. It zooms in on the dust of the impact radius more than on the spectacle of the explosion. It's a TV show unlike any other: slow and steady where others are fast and furious; simple where others are complicated; and beautiful in its utter plainness, while others get ugly as they pursue production design awards.
Tales From the Loop is not a show that will change the world, but maybe, just maybe, it might change you.
Tales From the Loop will begin streaming on Prime on April 3.