It’s not often I’ll watch an entire season of television, be baffled and slightly lost throughout, and still thoroughly enjoy myself. Such was my experience with the tortuous Polish series 1983, a Netflix original that manages the neat trick of being a dystopian alternate history period piece conspiracy thriller. This one is set in an extremely different 2003, one descended from a very different 1983, when a massive coordinated terrorist attack on Polish soil tightened the communist party’s grip on power so absolutely that its regime has survived for two decades. Poland is now a staid communist “utopia,” but the secrets of its past are about to come to light thanks to two very different men: Anatol Janów (Robert Wieckiewicz), a gruff, cynical detective for the People’s Militia, and Kajetan Skowron (Maciej Musial), a young, up-and-coming prospect of the ruling political class. When Kajetan’s professor is killed under mysterious circumstances, it sets him—with Anatol’s reluctant assistance—on a perilous course with Poland’s dark history.
1983 is dense, moody, and structurally unforgiving, and it’s extremely likely to repel the casual channel surfer. But it’s a rich, intriguing series that delivers the viewer to an unforgettable alternate world in which Poland is a consolidated communist power and a hotbed of political intrigue. Its worldbuilding isn’t particularly deep; one detail, that Al Gore is president during the 9/11 attacks, is the show’s primary shorthand for telling us we’re not in Kansas—er, Warsaw—any more. Nonetheless, the slick, matte-black look, officious buildings, and ominous uniforms of this strict surveillance society contribute to a convincing, immersive alternate-reality experience. Fans of the much more viewer-friendly series Counterpart might look at this as a deeper dive into the subgenre.
But oh my God, what the hell is happening? The chess board is crawling with pieces: rival Polish agencies, Mossad agents, American generals, Vietnamese organized criminals (or are they an arm of the government)? And of course, a resistance movement known as the Light Brigade, led by Kajetan’s childhood friend Effy Ibrom (Michalina Olszanska), which drives much of the surface conflict. The players circle each other in complex orbits, occasionally colliding, while every now and then flashbacks intrude to fill in the gaps. It’s all quite difficult to follow. Yet I was so taken by its unique backdrop and charismatic performances—particularly from Wieckiewicz and Olszanska—that I didn’t really care. I definitely hope this series continues, but oddly not because I want to know what happens next; I just want to roll around in its weird, intricate universe some more.