One of the quixotic elements of the entertainment industry is that it’s nearly impossible to manufacture success. Certain shows or movies can fashion a well-tread formula and use it to find favor with a grateful audience, but it’s hard to replicate lightning in a bottle. Nevertheless, Netflix seems intent on trying to continue its recent success in the genre arena, this time looking outside of North America for the next big TV mystery. It may very well have found it in “Dark,” the latest TV effort from “Who Am I — No System is Safe” team of Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese and Netflix’s first German-language original series.
Wrestling with themes of time, family, grief, guilt, and the metaphysical, “Dark” hits all of the finer points that helped propel series like “The OA” and “Stranger Things” to atmospheric success in a surprise string of 2016 hits. While not merely a rehash, there are enough elements from these past successes in “Dark” to make audiences think that it’s been finally calibrated to their sensibilities. Handsomely made and appropriately tense, “Dark” isn’t so much a puzzle show as a storytelling algorithm, ready to be recommended for viewers like you.
Key piece No. 1: a missing kid. Young Erik (Paul Radom) has gone missing, as any of the posters around a quiet German suburb quickly indicate. It’s just one of a dozen moving parts to “Dark” that the opening episode manages to set up, using family photos and news reports as a means to download everything you need to know (or at least guess) about this town and its history. Where some shows choose to open like a novel, “Dark” opens as a textbook.
Children from three different families, whose parents are closely intertwined in both expected and illicit ways, are all dealing with the professional and psychological effects of Erik’s disappearance. (One is a police detective, one is the high school principal, and another is a child therapist.) The school population and the community at large are also dealing with the suicide-by-hanging of Jonas’ (Louis Hofmann) father, Michael (Rudolph Sebastian).
Even when “Dark” is clinical in its set-up of these interweaving story threads, there’s still an incredible amount of energy coursing through the show. bo Odar’s camera glides through living rooms and dollies toward mortified faces, rarely pausing as it thrusts new characters and information into the fray. There’s frustrated romantic tension dripping from so many of these sequences, whether it’s an encounter between a man and his mistress or Jonas and a lost, unrequited love. Even an elderly woman sitting at a table and glancing nervously at a grandfather clock carries with her a certain amount of dread-filled forward motion.
As the ominous opening voiceover indicates, the repercussions and elasticity of time and fate also play an important role in helping this town uncover the secrets behind the truth of their children’s whereabouts. As these parents are forced to wrestle with the past in addition to the perils of the present, giving the high school and adult storylines equal footing helps to drive home the idea that the rising danger being visited upon this community may not be entirely unrelated to the events of their own youth.
After the barrage of details attached to the 50-minute opening episode, the show does settle in, affording these characters some breathing room. Destined for a lifetime of all-day marathon viewing sessions, “Dark” stacks its opening so thick, almost with the knowledge that audiences are fated to gobble up the remaining nine installments in this world of the slightly supernatural, all from a clearly defined syllabus. When characters like the newly widowed single mother Hannah (Maja Schöne), high school bad boy Bartosz (Paul Lux), struggling principal Katharina (Jördis Triebel), or Jonas himself get past the explanations of who they are, there’s hope for a series that’s more than just hopping from clue to clue.
After the audience is familiar with the potential horrors that might befall this nuclear-power-plant-adjacent community, there’s an opportunity to build tension in other ways. Some diversions give “Dark” a chance to break free from the dimmed landscape and muted color palette of this town and delight in some curveball pastel indulgences. Whenever things start to go haywire, “Dark” leans on some tried and true visual cues (a dead animal here, some flickering fluorescent lights there). There’s a certain element of precision in how these scares are crafted that hints that bo Odar and Friese are just as observant students of atmospheric horror as their Netflix TV forebears.
Even if some of the “You may like this…” seams still show in the making of “Dark,” its biggest selling point is as a story about a community haunted by something it refuses to talk about. When those telling the story are intent on flooding the screen with as many hints as possible, it can be hard to miss at times. Two episodes in, it’s the biggest reason that this show might just be worth recommending.
“Dark” recently made its world premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.