Amazon’s new sci-fi series Tales from the Loop exists in a world that is familiar and fantastic. Anyone watching who has hazy memories of the late 1970s and ’80s—its fashions, cars, and color schemes—will experience waves of nostalgia. But this is also a place with robots, time machines, and a metal orb that echoes back your voice from the future.
Officially set in small-town Ohio, Tales from the Loop is inspired by a series of paintings by Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag and carries over a sense of Scandinavian melancholy even as it fills our screens with wonder. The town is built above The Loop, a mysterious underground lab that employs most of the residents. We see the same people throughout the series, sometimes only in the background, though there’s nothing like a main character.
“You ever wonder where robots come from?” a little boy asks. Over The Loop, robots roam the woods like deer. What’s fantastic to us is mundane to those who live there.
How the magical, quasi-scientific gadgets work is never explained, because it doesn’t matter. In every episode, the technology is simply a catalyst to tell human stories. And the stories aren’t there so much to make us think as to make us feel. With the characters, we love, grieve, hope, despair, and have the horrible sense that some things can’t be undone. Even the music, set in a minor key, is forever building up to something victorious, holding us off balance between joy and loss in an unreal world.
In his gospel, John tells us Pilate asked, “What is truth?” And it’s a question we’re still asking today. My dear old mother would remind me that feelings are not truth, which is a truth to keep in mind when watching something that’s “all about the feels.” Often, feelings distract us from the truth.
The fourth episode, Echo Sphere, features a boy (Duncan Joiner) confronting the impending death of his grandfather (Jonathan Pryce). The two have a frank conversation about the possibility of an afterlife, which the grandfather handily dismisses with cold logic. It might be a startling shift, but before we can consider the truth, or untruth, of his reasoning we’re caught up in the hopelessness and loss being experienced by the child.
Love is another part of life that receives considerable attention throughout the series. Often it’s forbidden love, such as the passions of selfish teenagers, homosexual attraction, or extra-marrital affairs. It’s not the objective of the storytellers to assign any sort of moral judgment to the choices the characters make, but for us to share in the longing and heartbreak they feel. A couple of scenes stretch the boundary between sexually suggestive and explicit. But since each story stands alone, these episodes can be avoided with no great loss.
As a piece of visual art, Tales from the Loop is a beautiful success. As anything more, when the feelings have faded, viewers may find it as insubstantial as a dream. (Amazon Studios)