The Amazon Prime series Tales from the Loop intrigued me with its unusual source material: it’s inspired by the artwork of Simon Stålenhag. Basing an entire TV series on paintings? It sounds bonkers — but it also made me curious. As I watched this slow, elegiac series, I wasn’t certain it was landing with me initially, but the show coalesced into a surprisingly powerful slow-build, less for its science fictional chops than its meditative, philosophical reflection.
Based in a small Midwestern town in what appears to be an alternate 1980s, Tales from the Loop is, as its name intimates, an anthology series. Well, of sorts — its eight episodes function more or less as standalone stories, but they’re also connected, with a different protagonist for each tale but locations and characters in common. The town’s economy is based primarily around the “Mercer Centre for Experimental Physics,” colloquially referred to as “the Loop.” And while many members of the community are involved in the tales, most of them orbit around the Mercers: elderly patriarch Russ (Jonathan Pryce), who founded the Loop; his daughter-in-law Loretta (Rebecca Hall) and son George (Paul Schneider), who both work there; and Loretta and George’s two sons Jakob (Daniel Zohlgadri) and Cole (Duncan Joiner), both of whom are deeply impacted by its experiments.
The Loop, while outwardly just a mundane place of employment for the townspeople, is also a source of mysterious wonder. Its infrastructure — mysterious stations, towers, and science facilities — gives the otherwise rustic location a subtle veneer of scientific sophistication. Evidence of past experiments litters the landscape, defunct robots and abandoned technology lying around like so much junk. But these byproducts of the Loop often still work, with profound and often drastic consequences.
Viewers entering Tales from the Loop expecting something radically different will likely be disappointed, at least at the start; its genre progenitors are quickly identifiable. Its familiar mix of isolated, small-town nostalgia and skiffy weirdness conjures memories of shows as varied as Dark, Stranger Things, and Twin Peaks, all with premise-forward story design that reaches all the way back to The Twilight Zone. Initially, the show’s treatment of the science fictional elements is fairly superficial — here, a Freaky Friday device that enables people to switch bodies, there, another that enables people to stop time, and so forth. I found this off-putting in the early episodes; it made the show feel derivative, which, combined with its glacial pace, had a distancing effect on me. More jarring, at times there’s a sense of over-familiar science fictional tropes being delivered as if they’re just being discovered for the first time, which always rankles the jaded SF veteran in me, and comes across often as false profundity.
But Nathaniel Halpern, who wrote the entire season, infuses the series with its own style and ethos, and eventually the distracting skiffy déjà vu fades as his thoughtful narrative strategy unfolds. Tales from the Loop is more interested in using SF’s tools than in the tools themselves, and it uses them in service to slice-of-life philosophical exploration. In an episode titled “Stasis,” for example, a young woman named May (Nicole Law), who wishes to forestall change and prolong the perfect moment, finds her wish literalized in the form of the time-stopping device. In “Echo Sphere,” Russ shows Cole an odd, old device that predicts the length of your remaining life, forcing him to confront the fleetingness of existence. There’s no rigor to the science fiction: it’s all in service to metaphorical examination of the protagonist’s dilemma. In some ways, this makes it occasionally feel like “fake SF.” The Loop is life, basically, and these are tales about people coming to grips with the existential challenges of life itself.
But it’s hard not to respect the series’ command of its emotional content, which grows increasingly evident as the season progresses, as stories and subplots interact and build on each other. The cumulative effect intensifies during its best, final three episodes. “Parallel” is a touching tale about a lonely security guard named Gaddis (Ato Essandoh), who always dreamed of how his life could be different — and then, of course, gets to find out. “Enemies” solves the mystery of George’s prosthetic arm in a story about humanity’s cruel tendency to ostracize the other when they dont’ understand it. And in the season finale, “Home,” Cole seeks to recapture better days by attempting to save his brother from a peculiar, Loop-engineered fate. The groundwork of earlier episodes pays off here, providing an emotionally satisfying capper to the season.
A peculiar mosaic, overall. Its gentle, stately pace, designed to afford the visual artistry of its source material a chance to shine, is both distancing and welcoming. That artistry, by the way, is stunning and well worth the look. And while the barely glimpsed laboratories of the Loop remain unexplained — a sin to the cranky-pants SF purist in me — it’s also the correct thematic decision. In the end, I’m not sure I would call Tales from the Loop particularly strong as a science fictional construct. But the show — which seemed designed a limited series, but leaves room for speculation that it may continue — is skillful, unique television, an interesting experiment with an impressive cumulative effect.