TV: Tribes of Europa (Season 1)

On paper, Netflix’s Tribes of Europa ought to be a slam dunk, or at least a lay-up. Lavish, post-apocalyptic, German science fiction from the producers of Dark with a gorgeous cast? Sign me up, please. Alas, it’s more—if you’ll pardon the tortured metaphor—like a free throw.

It’s 2074, and Europe is well into its fifth decade since the E.U. collapsed. It’s now a sprawl of warring survivalist tribes, subsisting in the aftermath of a long-ago event called “Black December,” which led to widespread technological collapse. Nestled in the woods of Germany is one peaceful tribe, the Origenes, situated in a safe haven of wilderness that hasn’t attracted much attention. That all changes when an Atlantian spaceship crashes in their territory, drawing the interest of a bloodthirsty, powerful clan known as the Crows, who invade and slaughter the helpless tribe. Three siblings, however, survive the attack, embarking on separate adventures. Liv (Henriette Confurius) is rescued by the Crimsons, a paramilitary tribe committed to fading European principles and protecting the smaller tribes from hostilities. Kiano (Emilio Sakraya) is captured by the Crows, where he gets an eyeful of their unforgiving brutality, and sets about saving his similarly enslaved father and girlfriend. And young Elja (David Ali Rashed), at the dying wish of the ship’s pilot, escapes with an “Atlantian cube,” potent technology that may be the key to control of Europa.

It’s a promising set-up in many ways, a post-collapse science fantasy that rips its heroes from their Shire and propels them into a momentous continental power struggle. Each narrative track has its strengths. Liv’s is the most conventional, perhaps, as she allies herself with the Crimsons, driven by the desire to reunite her family—and, perhaps, by her attraction to a sympathetic officer named David (Robert Finster). Kiano has the roughest go, abused in the heartless, ur-Republican society of the Crows, a situation that only “improves” due to the sadistic whims of the fashionably brutal Lord Varvara (Melika Foroutan). But as protagonists, Liv and Kiano aren’t particularly interesting: action-hero supermodels, basically. It’s Elja’s track that is the most successful, as he befriends an opportunistic scoundrel named Moses (Oliver Masucci, going all-in) and enlists him in his mission to explore the world-shaking mysteries of the alien technology. Ali Rashed and Masucci have entertaining chemistry, and there’s more character and nuance in their sketchy collaboration than in the rest of the show combined.

Overall, there’s something inherently dissatisfying about Tribes of Europa, something hollow and distancing about it. The parts are fine, but the show is less than the sum of them. On some level, it may be the cagey, perhaps market-driven blandness of its build. The show’s faction-driven schemes and violence feel derivative of both Game of Thrones (particularly in the Crows track, which shares a certain nihilistic aesthetic) and, perhaps more obviously, The 100 (which similarly—and far more successfully, in its earlier seasons—pitted characters against each other using ethical conundrums and ideological arguments). But these comparisons aren’t the main problem, which is that the show tries to sell the emotional beats of that type of epic-scope high drama, without having earned them. At a mere six hours, it crams its frantic struggles into a compressed timeframe that doesn’t afford nearly enough time to grow the characters and connections. The viewer is expected to hit the ground running in their emotional investment. The 100 was similar in its jam-packed, constantly accelerating episodes, but also took more time (thanks to much-longer seasons) to reveal its world and build its relationships. Tribes  is more outwardly impressive, but skews its resources toward production values and away from story.

It may be too soon to write the show off entirely. So far, Tribes of Europa seems like it might be buzzworthy enough to spread its wings further; given more patience and narrative rope, it could develop into something addictive and successful, and it’s engaging enough I may continue despite my complaints. (It’s fun to review, it nothing else!) But this sampling—which, fair warning, doesn’t even tell a full story, ending with its characters on the threshold of new paradigms—made for an underwhelming start to the series.

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