‘Tales From the Loop’: Explaining the Quiet Revolution Behind Amazon’s Indefinable Sci-Fi Series

Based on the paintings of Simon Stålenhag, creators Nathaniel Halpern and Matt Reeves share how their show upends expectations for episodic anthologies, serialized TV, and more.
“Tales from the Loop” Ep108_D01Photo: Jan Thijs 2019
“Tales From the Loop”
Jan Thijs / Amazon Prime Video

Back when Matt Reeves was a film student, the young Angeleno trekked to his local cinema to watch Krzysztof Kieślowski’s, “Dekalog.” And then he went back again, and again, for five consecutive nights.

Reeves’ devotion wasn’t based entirely in cinematic obsession. Kieślowski’s acclaimed epic is nearly 10 hours long, and the theater only screened two entries per night, so Reeves had to come back if he wanted to finish the journey. But that wasn’t how the movie was made to be seen because “Dekalog” isn’t a movie at all. It is, in fact, a television show — a television show that audiences, primarily American audiences, didn’t know how to describe.

“There is something about each of them being these separate ruminations on the commandments, and they’re held together by this one holder, this one box, but each of those stories is a separate experience,” Reeves said in an interview with IndieWire. “And I think that in our own small little way, this idea of a sci-fi show that came from this very unexpected path […] it’s just a unique experience. I don’t know if I’ll ever be involved in anything quite like it again.”

Reeves’ comparison relates to his new anthology series, “Tales From the Loop,” which he executive produced and developed for Amazon Prime Video. Made up of eight standalone entries, the original series (emphasis on original) blends episodic and serialized storytelling like few other shows before it, coming up two hours shy of mirroring Kieślowski’s “Dekalog” in length, but finding common, uncommon ground in construction, execution, and impact.

Themes, genre, and a distinct, unifying feeling bond these stories together more than any overarching story, so it’s only fitting that a series defying easy descriptions — not quite an anthology series, not entirely episodic, not exactly serialized, and certainly not a typical season of TV — would have a peculiar origin of its own, starting with a book. Not a novel or a memoir, but a book of paintings made by Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag.

“One of the people at my company — actually, it was my writing assistant, Adam Sorin — saw the images online and brought them to our attention,” Reeves said. “Then Adam Kassan and Rafi Crohn were like, ‘Why don’t we pursue getting the rights to that book?’ And I was like, ‘Well, that sounds amazing, but what would we do with the rights? This is a book of paintings — incredible, symbolic paintings — but what would we do?'”

Enter Nathaniel Halpern. A writer on the trippy FX series “Legion” and AMC’s “The Killing,” Halpern went in for a general meeting with Reeves and his 6th & Idaho production company. No one planned to talk about Stålenhag’s paintings, but the discussion eventually led to someone pulling the book off the shelf, and Halpern’s fixation began.

“I’m not kidding when I tell you not a week later he came in and pitched the series almost exactly as it is on Amazon right now,” Reeves said.

“It sounds odd, but that’s exactly what happened,” Halpern said in a separate interview. “It was just one of those moments of great inspiration. I’ve worked on shows where you just have to dig in the dirt for a while to figure it out, but I looked at the images and it all just clicked in a moment for me. I had the stories and structure within a week, and it didn’t really bend at any point along the way.”

Included in Halpern’s initial design was an unconventional decision: Instead of making the show an ongoing quest to explain the mysteries of its premise, he wanted to let the mysteries be. In someone else’s hands, the series would’ve lent itself to the ever-popular “mystery box” structure, employed by everything from “Westworld” to “The Good Place”: The Loop would be the mystery box, and the show would be about opening it up and seeing what’s inside. What is it? How does it work? Who made it? Who controls it? What else can it do? Answers would be doled out slowly, keeping viewers hooked from episode to episode, until the final big reveal put an end to the series for good.

But Halpern didn’t want to make that show.

Tales From the Loop Jonathan Pryce Duncan Joiner
Jonathan Pryce and Duncan Joiner in “Tales From the Loop”Amazon Studios, Prime Video

“I feel like we’ve just been fed so much for this relationship between questions and answers that we’ve come to expect it within the structure of our programming. It’s just been done so much,” Halpern said.

Each episode of “Tales From the Loop” tells its own hourlong story, focusing on one citizen from the small town of Mersa, Ohio, and each entry shares key elements, like their setting and the Loop itself — a machine built under the town to unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe. Main characters from one tale become peripheral to later episodes. One episode sends a lonely man into another dimension, where his alternate self is living happily with a long-term boyfriend. Another finds a boy and his grandfather shouting into a hollow sphere to learn how long they have to live. The very first episode sends a young girl traveling through time. But rather than explain how any of these inexplicable actions take place, “Tales From the Loop” hones in on what the experiences mean to each subject.

“That’s why we weren’t sure if anyone would want to do it,” Reeves said about selling Halpern’s pitch to networks. “Obviously, there’s something satisfying about [knowing]. I love ‘The Twilight Zone,’ and a lot of other shows [like it], but coming to the answer is a great part of what the pleasure is, whereas here it’s exactly the opposite. You’re not meant to come to the answer; you’re meant to live with the fact you don’t have the answer, and what does that mean?”

For Halpern, his choice goes back to how he experienced Stålenhag’s work.

“Each one of his paintings has this sense of wonder because there’s this extraordinary element within this ordinary setting, and this wonder gets reset with each painting because it’s something new,” Halpern said. “So how do you keep that wonder alive? Very much like the paintings, you never get to the ‘I get it’ moment. There’s always going to be this new science-fiction conceit introduced each hour that allows you to reset the wonder each time.”

More than that, his pseudo-anthology structure was driven by a desire to tell human stories.

“I’ve described it as wanting to create a show that’s an empathy delivery device,” Halpern said. “It was important for me that we can recognize [ourselves in] the characters. ‘I know how that feels. I recognize that in myself.'”

“The business of this town is trying to unlock the mysteries of life, and the mysteries of life are unknowable,” Reeves said. “You can only scratch at the surface. So it was critical that the thing was never going to be about coming to the reductive answer because that would remove the humanist aspect of the storytelling. There’s so much we don’t know — there are things that seem miraculous that we don’t have the answers to — and that’s the very nature of existence.”

Halpern also noticed that when other science-fiction series focus on the mystery, answers are all that really matter. Shows become what he calls “data-driven”: so consumed by plot, viewers are just as satisfied by reading a recap as watching the episode.

“That word, ‘wonder,’ gets a lot of lip service,” he said. “I think that familiarity can dilute the power of wonder. So often in shows, there’s an interesting premise [that] can make your imagination light up, but as episodes go on, you start to know where the ceiling is and the parameters are, and I feel that’s when the wonder gets sucked out of it — as soon as you can wrap your arms around it and say, ‘I know what this is.'”

Similarly, he had to preserve the audience’s connection to his characters.

“Something that’s tough in television is: ‘Here’s this ordinary person we can relate to, something extraordinary happens to them, and then we go on this journey.’ That’s great, but the problem is when too many things happen to an ordinary person, they’re not ordinary anymore, and they’re no longer relatable,” Halpern said. “They have this fantastical backstory all of a sudden, and I don’t see myself [in them] anymore.”

Tales From the Loop Amazon Prime Video Season 1
“Tales From the Loop”Jan Thijs / Amazon Prime Video

“It’s funny,” Reeves said. “I knew from the beginning that what Nathaniel was pitching was an extreme high-degree of difficulty execution-wise. We’ve got incredible actors — Jonathan Pryce, Rebecca Hall — but they’re not even in every single episode. There is something that’s gained by watching it chronologically, but each story also stands alone as a short story; as an exploration of a particular theme that the painting and the metaphor present to you that hopefully connects with you emotionally, to experiences you’ve had. The form of it just hasn’t been done.”

Herein lies one last question: Is “Tales From the Loop” a new kind of TV show, or a modern twist on an old idea? When “Dekalog” came out, it was a TV series that was treated like a film. Today, wars are waged when creators claim a TV release is actually a  “10-hour movie.” Episodic anthologies are criticized — often rightly — for being too much like short films, and thus misunderstanding television’s inherent advantages over one-and-done narratives (like character development, intimacy, and the cumulative impact of time). Where does “Tales From the Loop” fit in the evolving modern landscape of “too much TV”?

“When I think about these labels of a TV show or a film, I find more and more that so many people are watching this through the same screen, in their homes, and I think people are just looking for an experience, and it comes down to what experience you’re going to put on that screen,” Halpern said.

“I think audiences do crave a complete story; that there’s an ending there; that it’s a full journey. Traditionally with television, you have a complete story, but it’s drip-fed to you over 10, 12 episodes, and you know it’s going somewhere, but episode-to-episode, they kind of blur together. It’s entertaining, and it can be done very well, but maybe there’s an audience with that film craving: ‘I want the full story, now. I don’t want the 10 hours to feel like I got somewhere.'”

“It’s the idea of having the experience of a short film each week, but that you also have the added experience of gaining something from seeing the cumulative flow of them,” Reeves said. “The idea of that is so unique that I think audiences respond to it because it’s different. You get satisfaction from many different things. You get the satisfaction of seeing an hourlong movie that’s about this particular idea — a magical, mysterious idea — but then the fact that they also connect on top of that, that things reverberate against each other, and that they all are unified by this idea of asking questions about the mysteries of life? I think that’s really special.”

Halpern now faces the challenge of replicating that special quality, assuming he’s asked to do so. Though it’s too early for renewal conversations for a potential Season 2, the creator knows his series is built to last.

“So often, I feel like [people] try to make film premises into television, and they don’t have any legs,” Halpern said. “You realize, how do you keep this going? You’ve got our attention, but this doesn’t have the engine of a television show, and that’s where you really have to pay attention to what makes television work, instead of a film. Here, what was wonderful, is the Loop itself — it’s a wonderful storytelling generating device. It’s such a simple, elegant, premise that it can just churn out stories about this town and the people who live there, so it’s kind of endless.”

Still, a sense of urgency is needed to reach the next stage. TV viewers are often compelled to keep going by the lingering questions in the ongoing story. By telling a full story in each episode and promising never to delve into the bigger mysteries of the Loop itself, Halpern’s series eliminates that drive to keep watching episode-to-episode, or even season-to-season.

“It’s not a very propulsive show, but there’s a feeling to it,” he said. “Do I want to feel that feeling? That’s what I hope would be why someone wants to watch the next one and the next one. They care about these characters and [connect with] this place.”

“It’s very exciting to see people connect to it,” Reeves said. “We know we’re excited about it, but will it be loud enough for people? In today’s landscape, a lot of times the idea of those big, narrative, twisty, sci-fi things is that’s actually the thing that makes people come back. But what we’ve seen here, early in the launch, is that people are surprised by the intimacy of [“Tales From the Loop”] — the whole thing lives and dies in the little moments — so the people who are connecting to that, it’s incredible.”

At least in the case of “Tales From the Loop,” viewers don’t have to hoof it to the theater. The next little moment, the next feeling, the next episode — it’s just a few clicks away.

“Tales From the Loop” is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.

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