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‘Dark’ Spoilers Review: Anyone Expecting ‘Stranger Things’ is in for a Hypnotic, Jarring TV Puzzle

Netflix's twisty, twisted German drama may wrestle with more than 10 episodes can contain, but it's fascinating to watch something this ambitious.

Dark Season 1

“Dark”

Stefan Erhard/Netflix

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for the entirety of “Dark” Season 1. For a spoiler-free review, please click here.]

Given its release date and the missing child premise at the outset, “Dark” drew inevitable comparisons to another particular Netflix show before it was even released. But whether or not the show pops up in a “Because You Watched ‘Stranger Things’” algorithm, know that this show decidedly goes places that few TV dramas usually do.

In the process, “Dark” never quite shakes off the puzzle box nature of its setup, but to watch the various layers of the show unravel, bolstered by a cast list length that George R.R. Martin would be proud of, it’s a distinctive viewing experience, even when it tackles more than 10 episodes can contain.

(This is usually the point in an IndieWire spoilers review where we make a light attempt at summarizing the plot. To do so for “Dark” would be like trying to print a synopsis of “Primer” on a sugar packet. So instead…)

Let’s Talk About Time

Mikkel’s (Daan Lennard Liebrenz) disappearance becomes the engine driving the show (how quickly we forget about poor Erik), ensnaring father Ulrich (Oliver Masucci) and the increasing web of townsfolk caught up in the effort to find him without causing a paradoxical tear in the fabric of spacetime.

Once viewers get that far, the time travel hook is probably what’s going to end up keeping audiences interested past the big reveal (and the even bigger 1953 shift). With a bevy of Winden townsfolk to juggle before that wrinkle gets introduced, “Dark” gets an an early vote of confidence in how it makes viewers care about seeing Young Hannah or Young Ulrich despite having effectively just met their older counterparts.

Credit co-creators Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese for not shying away from comparisons to other time travel stories and still offering up some logistical framework for some wormhole process nerds. “Dark” probably would not have worked had characters like Jonas (Louis Hofmann) or Charlotte (Katharina Nielson) — and most certainly Tannhaus — not have had pre-conceived conceptions of working through alternate timelines. By avoiding the “Characters in ‘The Walking Dead’ Don’t Know What Zombies Are” dilemma, the show creates a common baseline understanding onto which Friese and the show’s others writers can pile on Nietzsche, et al.

The sci-fi elements of “Dark” also resonate more because the show gives careful thought to how psychologically scarring and jarring going through this experience would be. It’s not just a storytelling gimmick to get someone to meet his mom, there’s some thought given to what the hopelessness of changing a grim present does to everyone who comes in its path. Some of those montages, intoning the malleable nature of time while surveying the literal wall of evidence tying all these characters together, starts to become repetitive, but at least it’s not idle, empty theorizing.

Assembling the Family Tree is Part of the Reason You’re Here

But even with that philosophizing, there is a tiny thrill of recognition when one piece slots into the show’s overall puzzle. Connecting the idea that Regina (Deborah Kaufmann) is the hotel proprietor or that Peter (Stephan Kampwirth) is Helge’s son or that the hooded Stranger is older Jonas is either thrilling — if you catch it before the characters do — or mentally satisfying, once the show locks it in place for you. Creating a flexible puzzle drama is not an easy task, but the show does allow for people to digest it at multiple speeds. Some episode-ending reveals are designed to pack a wallop, but the story’s built in a way that some of those more gradual realizations are equally rewarding.

The small-town setting of “Dark” keeps the number of the coincidental run-ins with family members and loved ones from other timelines from feeling too contrived. By the end of the season, when the Tiedemanns prove to be just as central to this carefully constructed intersectional emotional melee as anyone else, there’s a true cosmic sense to what’s happened. This isn’t just one family’s sins visited upon the town. It’s an entire city forced to reconcile with its past, sometimes in the literal form of their elders’ younger selves.

And this complex web isn’t merely constructed to call attention to its own impressiveness. “Dark” is a show where knowing each character’s lineage is vital to not only the plot, but some very distinct character motivations. (The look on Jonas’ face when he struggles to explain why he and Martha can’t be together is heartbreaking; doubly so because the show emphasizes the many reasons why it’s a catastrophic situation.)

Dark

“Dark”

Stefan Erhard/Netflix

Let’s Go Through the Hop

In juggling the timelines, there’s obviously great care given to make sure that the period details help to sell the difference. But when a new year is introduced, there’s a careful attention to the idea that Winden is a small town that changes incrementally. Even after 33 years and an entire generation has passed, much of the architecture, city layout, and the woods itself wouldn’t have changed drastically enough to warrant a major visual change. The ‘50s cop car isn’t introduced to a rockabilly soundtrack and Jonas’ 2019 jacket isn’t lost in a sea of neon and hairspray.

Part of this comes from the unification of the music that the show does use. Ben Frost’s score is eerie when minimal and properly confounding when using sparse vocals as the main instrumental focus. Tossing in a couple Nena songs (thank God they spared us another ’80s story leaning on “99 Luftballons”), the show largely forgoes a standard American soundtrack-of-the-decade approach for something that bridges all three timelines in a way that makes sense.

Odar also is careful to choose the moments where the meticulous, slightly removed style of the storytelling gets broken in favor of a fresh perspective. Switching to a POV shot when Ulrich goes undercover or breaking off to a handheld feel for some of the series’ fight and chase sequences draws more attention to these moments. Time differences are important, but because the idea that all three decades are unified in a pattern of events, those slight visual changes are nearly as important as the calendar shifts.

The Trauma

Kids can often be a shortcut to stakes: Endanger the child and suddenly everything matters. “Dark” largely avoids this trap by actually following Mikkel as he navigates a strange world, even if his adjustment period eventually becomes just one of many as characters get lost across timelines. Katharina may have been left near-catatonic after Mikkel’s disappearance, but “Dark” attempts to show that the adults in this saga are more than just parents driven by their pursuit of missing children. They have their own deep-seated family grudges and interpersonal tragedies. When Ulrich puts together that Mads is the child discovered in the opening episodes, there’s an understanding of what’s been pent up for so long.

One drawback of this cacophony of trauma is that the inner turmoil of some characters does eventually become a means to an end. It’s not impossible for a series to balance thoughtful considerations of the consequences of rape accusations, unintentional incest, and child murder while also considering other kinds of struggles. But the Peter storyline in particular comes across as a grafted-on way to use sexual identity as a twine to connect two pieces on the evidence wall.

Over the course of 10 hours, the seams of this web start to show a little. Given the overarching nature of the Winden drama, it’s curious to see how so much of the 2019 storyline comes down to a lingering lovers’ quarrel. The cyclical nature of infidelity and the questions of what we owe to each other in times of crises is a throughline that “Dark” is clearly concerned with, but there’s something about Hannah’s various modes of revenge that make for a difficult distraction.

Focusing so much on this show’s totemic years doesn’t leave much room in Season 1 for the 33 years in between each event, except to see how everyone ends up. Hannah’s accusation lingers into the present (as well it should), but her relationship with Michael is one example of a dynamic that goes relatively unexplored given the sheer number of character permutations that “Dark” has to reconcile.

Dark Season 1

“Dark”

Stefan Erhard/Netflix

So, Where to Next?

Noah, he of the extravagant back tattoo and never-aging devilish scowl, is the one “Dark” character that still seems elusive. To have, in effect, the series’ master string-puller be the one person we know least about is a curious storytelling decision. It ultimately allows “Dark” to focus more on effect than cause in its ending, but these episodes will feel more rounded if/when the show gets to delve more into Noah’s troubled past during a yet-to-be-confirmed Season 2.

Much like Mikkel and his cup-and-balls routine, “Dark” is smiling as it presents a mystery, being so upfront about appearances being deceiving that the question isn’t if these characters will be revealed for something other than they are but when. For some, that may be exactly what they want from a Netflix binge. (Though, I would caution watching all of these back to back. What you make up for in character coherence, you lose in questioning your own sense of reality.) Undoubtedly, this is a show that will be parsed over for details, connections, and makeshift family trees for the better part of the rest of this year.

For the most part, this is a show built on the idea that you get out what you put in, even if there are a few extra side-by-side montages to get you up to speed when things get hectic. “Dark” is dense, unforgiving, and true to its title, but sometimes keeping an eye on the magician’s hands is a task all its own.

Grade: B

“Dark” Season 1 is streaming now exclusively on Netflix.

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