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‘1899’ Is Netflix’s Next Big TV Experiment

The new drama series from the team behind “Dark” is another massive puzzle, one with a surprising mix of new and old pieces.

1899 Netflix Fog

“1899”

Netflix

Giving a plot summary of “1899” is like describing what a glop of paint looks like when it’s millimeters from your face. You can describe the color and the texture and maybe even something about the way the light hits it as part of a portrait, but it’s hard to make the case for something in an exhibit without being able to see the thing in full.

So I could say that “1899” is a story that takes place on the Kerberos, a boat sailing the Atlantic in the closing year of the 19th century. I could talk about Maura (Emily Beecham), the exiled doctor running from the shadows of her past. I could make the case that Kerberos captain Eyk (Andreas Pietschmann) and a slew of passengers from cushy suites to the cargo hold are all doing the same thing.

But series creators Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar organize “1899” in a way that’s meant to be more of an experience where those details mean little by themselves. As with their previous show “Dark,” “1899” trades almost exclusively in lofty ideas. Each person aboard the Kerberos exists more as a possibility than a spot on a manifest. Part of the show’s appeal is watching each new episode turn over another card, discovering what specific kind of conflict waits on the other side. It doesn’t take long for “1899” to clue in anyone watching that all of these riders are escaping…something.

“1899” isn’t a true anthology, but like many twisty dramas that come before it, each episode is initially structured around a single person and the events that led them to the Kerberos. Both on the show and in the eyes of the audience, they’re all defined by a single traumatic event. What all of those past chapters have to do with the truth behind another missing ship that took off for America months before the Kerberos is something that “1899” keeps hidden as long as it can. In that meantime, on a thematic and practical level, this ship is basically an entire continent in microcosm.

1899 Passengers

“1899”

Netflix

This is the lane that Friese and bo Adar travel in their TV work. Is there some frustration in how opaque some stretches of “1899” can get? Almost certainly. Are there some philosophical ideas and concepts that get reduced to their most simplistic form, even as the show is swinging for something more profound? Almost inevitably. But as a team of narrative magicians working their misdirects and flourishes for the purpose of the whole rather than the parts, there’s no one else making TV quite this way.

“Dark” painted on a cosmic canvas, taking the story of one German town and spinning it into a struggle for fate and creation. That sense of scope comes here in “1899” more on the visual side, starting with the sweeping shots of the Kerberos on the open water. That scale also comes through in the logistics of the ship, especially when it’s more than waves that start to upend everything on board. As the show travels from the bridge to the deck to the hull to the boiler room, there’s a clear layout to the ship’s own physical hierarchy, one that seems destined to crumble even before we see everyone’s circumstances begin to level out.

“1899” isn’t shy about the story DNA it’s appropriating for its own use. Any time you structure a show about isolated strangers around flashbacks — and return to the present through someone’s eye opening — the comparisons are going to come. There are still points of proof that this is a show using those familiar ideas for a new end. Chief among them is its international ensemble, drawing on the contributions of Isabella Wei, José Pimentão, Yann Gael, Maciej Musial, Clara Rosager, and a host of others. “1899” frequently shuffles these passengers together so that they’re forced to communicate in ways beyond their mismatched languages. The best performances here (including those mentioned above and young newcomer Fflyn Edwards) tap into a more primal way of getting across the grief and regret that weigh this ship down.

1899 The Boy

“1899”

Netflix

The more that these individual stories start to converge, the less that they feel like modular pieces. Friese and the writing team seize on the idea that despite being on board a ship in the middle of watery nowhere (or maybe because of it), these people are escaping either who they are and who their fellow travelers think they are. bo Adar represents that flexibility on a visual level, not just in moving between past and present, but in how fundamentally different the areas of the ship are. And for as much as the period setting and some of the Kerberos’ secrets require some VFX trickery, there’s still plenty in “1899” that’s tactile. The coal in the boiler room, the output from a telegraph machine, the synchronized movements of an entire subset of the crew: They all work in their own way to make sure this is not just a digital dreamland playground.

A lot of this is talking around what lurks on the Kerberos and the other forces that venture into its path. “1899,” like “Dark,” certainly draws strength from its own reveals. Whether or not withholding key information is something that works in favor of “1899,” there’s at least a method to the haunted ship madness. In many ways, it helps to be as adrift and clueless as the people playing out the story in front of you. Drawing on those same ideas of trust and perception and truth is what made “Dark” a modern TV classic (and easily one of the best shows in the entire Netflix catalogue).

The caveat there is that “Dark” worked best as a holistic piece. The full value of “1899” is in its presumed multi-season arc, one that still feels unfinished by design. Being coy over the course of these eight episodes does put Season 1 in a kind of prologue mode, setting up the pieces before revealing the room, the table, and the board on which those pieces sit. So “1899” is long on ideas and relatively short on answers, setting up a dynamic where success or failure depends entirely on who is setting sail.

Grade: B+

“1899” Season 1 is now available to stream on Netflix. 

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