“Archive 81” is a show that invites, almost demands, constant skepticism. There’s a certain kind of simmering paranoia that runs through this new Netflix series, boiling so clearly that it’s almost impossible to take anything at face value. To a certain extent, that’s the point. In setting up a story about an unassuming archivist who agrees to restore a series of camcorder tapes from the mid-’90s, it’s inevitable that what seems like a simple task will give way to something larger and more unwieldy. What makes “Archive 81” such a perplexing viewing experience is how it takes some wild, generation-spanning ideas and strips them down to a pedestrian presentation that robs it of its otherworldly power.
The first few minutes of the show — after a quick context-free cold open, a trick each successive episode subverts to varying degrees of success — introduce Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie), an employee at the Museum of the Moving Image who gets a mysterious, out-of-the-blue job offer. At the behest of an enigmatic CEO (Martin Donovan), Dan is soon whisked away upstate for peculiar contract work. At a remote facility, working as a crew of one, Dan meticulously cleans and respools fire-damaged footage of an interview series conducted at a New York apartment building back in 1994. That project’s architect, Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi), films more than just standard over-the-shoulder conversations, flipping the camera on herself enough for Dan to slowly piece together a story behind the story unfolding at the Visser Apartments.
“Archive 81” liberally hops between both timelines, with Dan stuck in his chilly and drab minimalist video lab and Melody questioning tenants about some of the Visser’s odder quirks. The show seesaws between things getting weirder for Melody in 1994 and Dan’s parallel search for answers almost 30 years later. Handling both at the same time is a structural bind that originated with the podcast series from which the show is adapted. In audio, merging those thematically linked storylines is a little more fluid, with the idea that any new “tape” could be Melody’s archives or Dan’s.
The circle that this TV version never really fully squares is what to do whenever Dan is watching these tapes. Athie is a versatile screen presence who can play Grandmaster Flash or a reserved lovelorn New Yorker, but here he’s mostly saddled with having to react to what everyone else is already seeing. Dan’s task becomes like “Archive 81” itself: a tidy series of peeks into another time too calculated to be surprising and too straightforward to be unsettling.
Without detailing too much of what Dan and Melody eventually find, it’s tied into a self-contained lore that, as sprawling as it has the potential to feel, unfolds along a path that becomes rote over the season’s eight episodes. Dan fills in his podcast-hosting pal, Mark (Matt McGorry), while Melody keeps her friend and artistic wild card, Annabelle (Julia Chan), in the loop. That leads to a big portion of “Archive 81” slipping into recapping and rule-explaining, usually when a single detail in one of Melody’s tapes is enough to spell out a connection explicitly. It’s not that the show would be better if it withheld more, but most of the steps building the world of “Archive 81” outward are done in a way that feels more obligatory than efficient.
Quantrell D. Colbert/Netflix
In 1994, Melody gathers info on her neighbors one by one: an academic with a charming smile, an old-moneyed history enthusiast, the security guard who might be protecting more than he lets on, the kid being effectively raised by everyone else in the Visser. Through check-ins with his mysterious benefactors, Dan reveals more about the personal coincidences between the tapes he’s watching and events in his own past.
“Archive 81” keeps a glimmer of found footage DNA, but the further Dan gets in his task and the more he’s able to glean from informational sources apart from the tapes themselves, there’s less of a need to be invested in him picking up on what Melody is filming. Part of the inherent pull of a story told through recovered tapes is the idea that there’s something fundamentally unknowable about what’s happening beyond the edges of what you’re watching. “Archive 81” makes that distinction meaningless early enough and never quite finds a more compelling mystery to put in its place.
There are members of the show’s ensemble that do try to keep their characters from being confined to a single trait or focus. Chan brings some much-needed levity and spark to a story that gets trapped by the dark cloud constantly hovering over everything else. Before it ends up being subsumed into the viscous soup of Vissser’s darker side, there’s a faint hint of a romance that cuts through in Melody’s half of the timeline. For a story tapped into a distinct melody, composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow make some welcome contributions that are genuinely unnerving. And a few visual stingers really do capture the dread this story needs to thrive on, particularly one near the end of Episode 4, directed by “Spring” duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead.
For the most part, “Archive 81” has a singular focus on the mystery powering the dark force in these tapes. The road to that ending is methodical and labored at times, and there’s rarely a reprieve to bring in any other tonal shades. The final product — complete with a mishmash of ritual and faith, paired with a somewhat flimsy regard for mental health — exists more as a collection of ideas. As new wrinkles each raise a handful of fresh possibilities, “Archive 81” rarely settles on how or where to best focus its attention.
“Archive 81” is now available to stream on Netflix.