‘Tales from the Loop’ Review: Amazon’s New Anthology Is a Soothing Sci-Fi Escape

     April 3, 2020

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Amazon’s new series, sci-fi anthology Tales From the Loop, feels like a soothing, dreamy, otherworldly balm. Tales From the Loop may be part of the bigger trend of sci-fi anthology shows like Black Mirror or the Twilight Zone revival, but stands out as an entry focused on finding the good in life-changing technology and scientific discoveries, rather than pondering how it could all go wrong.

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Image via Prime Video

Arriving at a time when things are noticeably more chaotic than we’re used to, Tales From the Loop is going to help you forget about whatever else might be happening right now. This here’s a much slower, more contemplative kind of sci-fi show — the kind that will actually restore your faith in people and their interaction with technology, the unknown secret of the cosmos, and all other #BigSciFiConcepts. With the help of creator and writer Nathaniel Halpern (Legion), Tales From the Loop seems unconcerned with scaring you about the unknown results of encountering something new and otherworldly. Instead, he and his show seemingly want to delight you, intrigue you, let your mind wander, and all other manner of good things as you watch a talented cast play out a new anthology’s worth of stories.

Tales From the Loop is based on paintings created by Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag for his 2014’s narrative art book of the same name. Stålenhag’s work blends together nostalgic suburban settings ripped straight out the early 1980s, inserting robots, machinery, and other gadgetry you’d see in the 2080s and beyond. Halpern’s Amazon series takes Stålenhag’s imagery to heart, sometimes pulling straight from the works of art for scenes in the series and posters for the show.

It is in the setting and the imagery that Tales From the Loop succeeds right at the outset. Blending the nostalgic charm of a time when personal computers were still big bricks with thudding modems and your dad’s Volvo was just as boxy, with say, the occasional glimpse of a giant robot, either powered up or powered down, makes this show immediately familiar to any sci-fi fan, casual or devout. There are no direct pop culture lifts from our own world and the series actively eschews referring to, say, NASA or Silicon Valley or any of the folks associated with it. Instead, you get a sense right out of the gate this series is set in a world like or own but perhaps adjacent to it.

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Image via Prime Video

Every frame of the three episodes made available to screen — Episodes 1, 4, and 6 — has a hazy, warm glow glossed over it, making this world feel as comforting and dreamy as it is natural and familiar in its presentation of the sci-fi elements. The music comes from the brilliant minds of Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan, whose compositions are elegantly suited to the looks and feel of this show, carrying us along and providing as much emotional depth to each episode as the writing, direction, set design, performances, and beyond. Because of these winning artistic decisions — arguably some of the show’s most enticing assets — you can easily sink into the world Tales From the Loop has built for you. Even when the show occasionally fall short of telling a fulfilling narrative (and it doesn’t happen a ton, but alas, there are moments), there is so much to visually drink in and ponder you almost don’t mind at all.

The show is set entirely in Mercer, Ohio, a small town where the hub of all life is at the Mercer Center for Experimental Physics, a research center commonly  known as “The Loop.” At The Loop, scientists work underground, trying to “unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe,” according to MCEP’s founder, Russ Willard (Jonathan Pryce). Mercer is unlike any other town because of the technology available to the researchers and townsfolk, who have happily assimilated with any snappy gadgetry that would otherwise be ahead of its time and where the laws of physics are regularly bent.

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Image via Prime Video

There’s an almost too-elegant explanation as to why all of this is made possible in the premiere episode, “Loop,” directed to stunning effect by Mark Romanek (Never Let Me Go). Speaking of, additional episodes made available to screen were helmed by equally excellent directors Andrew Stanton (Wall-E) and Charlie McDowell (LegionThe One I Love). All three directors bring their own flare, emotional insights, and skills to the forefront in their respective episodes as they breathe life into Halpern’s scripts. The cast assembled to tell eight episodes in this first season is just as top shelf as the directors. In addition to Pryce, the primary cast includes Rebecca HallPaul SchneiderJane Alexander, and relative newcomers Duncan Joiner (Camping) and Daniel Zolghadri, (Eighth Grade). These actors play members of the Willard clan, who pop in and out of each episode and occasionally are the focus of the episode in question. Everyone is turning in their loveliest, most deft performances possible here and are not let down when it comes to Halpern’s writing, which is smart and somehow always finds the right things to say.

I bring up these individual aspects of Tales From the Loop first because, upon closer inspection, they are strong while the overall effectiveness of what the series tries to do comes up a bit shorter than expected. In the case of the sci-fi anthology, it’s natural that some episodes will outdo others. In the case of the three out of eight Tales From the Loop episodes I watched — which in no way make what I’m about to say supremely definitive — it would seem each episode is coming up short in the same way time and time again, making each episode as good and as unfulfilling as the last. For seasoned sci-fi viewers like myself, it might be tough accepting Tales From the Loop‘s frequently brief, uncomplicated, and occasionally absent explanations for why this world is the way it is as its been touched by something cosmic and technologically advanced.

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Image via Prime Video

In the opening episode, “Loop”, a young girl searching for her mother is transported through time but with no visual clues given early. on and a kind of Deus Ex Machina reasoning given at the end, the logic of the story it is trying to tell falls apart the more you think about it. In another episode, “Echo Sphere,” a young boy grapples with the loss of a family member and there’s not too much that’s sci-fi about it other than his encounter with the titular Echo Sphere, which does the neat trick of revealing how long a person will live based on their echo (it’s neater when you watch). But Halpern doesn’t press the science fiction in any episode, even when taking some time to really parse it might help some of the philosophical inquiries the show attempts to make about the nature of human existence and our relationship to the physical world. The trouble is, I wish Tales From the Loop would press it further. I certainly don’t think it’s a bad show because it doesn’t, but you can feel the show tentatively holding back for fear of scaring you away with sci-fi jargon and technobabble which are frequently used in other anthology shows of this ilk.

Overall, Tales From the Loop makes for a deeply charming, captivating watch. If you’re looking for something almost Spielberg-ian in its desire to capture the magic of sci-fi of days gone by, this series is for you. If you’re looking to put your worries on the backburner and test drive something news, this series is for you. Or, if you’re simply looking to scratch your itch for some new, intriguing, philosophical sci-fi stories, then Tales From the Loop is absolutely for you.

Rating: ★★★

Tales From the Loop is now available on Amazon Prime Video.

Television