“Tales From the Loop” has all the elements of a mystery box show, except it’s largely — and wisely — uninterested in its mystery. Set in a small Ohio town at an undisclosed time, the new science-fiction series from creator Nathaniel Halpern (a writer on “Legion”) tracks the lives of various locals who are affected by the titular “Loop”: a massive black machine housed underground within an experimental physics center.
So, what’s this machine do? As the company’s founder, Russ (Jonathan Pryce), explains to his grandson, Cole (Duncan Joiner), The Loop “makes the impossible, possible.”
If your mind is already racing with possibilities, slow it down. While most writers would treat a statement like that as a starting gun, sending viewers through a maze of puzzles to find out the truth behind The Loop’s exact origins, express purpose, and explicit capabilities, Halpern isn’t interested in puzzles. He’s interested in people. Each episode of “Tales From the Loop” focuses on a different citizen of Mersa, Ohio. Each episode sees The Loop create a bizarre, inexplicable event. But each event and episode are designed to bring you closer to the individual, not the machine.
Told with a delicacy and patience, “Tales From the Loop” is better for not being another ambling mystery box show, yet carries a few of the common flaws seen in other episodic anthologies (especially hourlong ones). Detailed character work from Rebecca Hall, Jonathan Pryce, and a slew of lesser known actors help build emotional ties quickly, and gorgeous countryside compositions from directors like Jodie Foster, Andrew Stanton, and So Yong Kim create a distinct yet familiar world worth investing in again and again. (The show is inspired by co-executive producer Simon Stålenhag’s artwork.) Even when arcs are a little too simple, to fit within the story’s abbreviated runtime, these creative tales should prove absorbing for more than just genre enthusiasts.
The first episode tells you all you need to know about “Tales,” especially related to the machine. Ostensibly about a little girl whose mother performs risky experiments for the company, “Loop” sets up the audience’s relationship to its characters, world, and The Loop itself. Really, the show couldn’t care less about the machine. The company barely even guards it. Kids make their way down to look at it, grab chunks off its rocky facade, and are barely scolded for intruding. Halpern acknowledges the allure of The Loop by letting his characters ask questions and get hands-on experience with it, but they all more or less move on. While The Loop is obviously important — it’s quite the literal interpretation of a story engine — Halpern carefully guides viewers away from unanswerable questions and toward universal ones.
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Many of those questions are about contrasting who we were and who we’ve become. Whether it’s a grown scientist seeing herself in a young girl, or a frustrated kid learning about death through his grandfather, or a man growing to appreciate how differences can bring people together, “Tales From the Loop” connects its themes even if its episodes stand alone. Complicated plot developments — involving time travel, other dimensions, and plenty more established science-fiction tropes — are contrasted with simple messages, and the blend should make everyone happy. If you want to speculate how or why an event was possible, you can; there’s time for your own thoughts built into each episode. But if you just want to follow the character’s story, that’s OK, too.
On a granular level, there’s much to admire. The acting, as mentioned, is spot-on, with Pryce and Ato Essandoh giving particularly memorable performances; the cinematography is flat-out gorgeous, whether directors are embedding replicas of Stålenhag’s work into the narrative or making the most of how he blends earthly rural settings (woods, lakes, and plains) with weathered futuristic technology (like the cute little chicken walker that watches scenes unfold from behind a tree); minor eccentricities go unacknowledged, like Paul Schneider’s robot arm or giant tubes spiraling out of an otherwise ordinary house, but they all help to build a unique world (and set up stories to come).
But when you take a broader look at the individual tales and their summation, there’s not much to either. Being well-crafted isn’t the same thing as carrying great depth, and while “Tales From the Loop” offers moments of insight and poignancy, it could also benefit from slightly more serialization. Episodic anthologies often vary wildly in terms of quality, and the three provided to critics all meet the same solid standard, but the thrust is still missing.
Serialized or not, television benefits from long-term relationships, built over time, and when character arcs are kept within singular episodes, it’s easier to quit watching altogether. I like Rebecca Hall. I like her character in this. I feel like there’s more to explore there, but she only passes through the other two episodes. There’s no assurance, or even suggestion, that we’ll come back around to any of the primary subjects of singular episodes, even after those episodes form genuine attachments.
In short, it’s odd for a show so focused on personal connection to ignore television’s unique position to develop those bonds. Episodic anthologies often struggle to replicate audience expectancy; that drive you feel to see what happens next. The sci-fi genre often uses extraordinary outward events to look inward. “Tales From the Loop” does the latter very well, but still struggles with the former; while it’s nice not to feel like you have to keep watching to solve the mystery, more urgency could help the series carry a more lasting impact. There’s a lot of beauty in this loop, for those curious enough to seek it out.
“Tales From the Loop” Season 1 is now streaming via Amazon Prime.