TV: Archive 81

The short-lived Archive 81 falls into a select category of small-screen podcast adaptations. (Is there another one, aside from Amazon’s compelling Homecoming? If so, I’m not aware of it.) Netflix ruthlessly pulled the plug on this series after one eight-episode season, but that’s very unfortunate given the podcast evidently had more story to tell, and it made for a unique, visually engaging supernatural serial.

Archive 81 joins—and also quietly mutates—the “found footage” subgenre of creepy, filmic horror. Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie), an introverted video footage conservator, embroils himself in a historic mystery when a wealthy employer, Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan), hires him for a lucrative new job: restoring a cache of damaged video cassettes from a New York City apartment fire. He quickly comes to learn that most of the footage was shot by a doctoral student, Melody Pendras (Dina Shahabi), who moved into the doomed Visser building to complete a dissertation on it—but primarily as a pretext for tracking down her missing mother. Sifting through the footage, Dan follows in Melody’s investigative footsteps, gradually uncovering the existence of a strange occult group in the building, and ultimately the reason for Melody’s disappearance. But Dan isn’t just witnessing the story; he’s a part of it, somehow. His restoration work—which takes place in a well outfitted but creepy, remote compound in upstate New York—inexplicably leads to waking dreams of personal interactions with Melody, with whom he possesses an inexplicable connection.

Archive 81 begins confidently and sets up its core premise well, establishing Dan as something of a connoisseur of outdated AV media, and then propels him into the position of chipping away at a nerve-wracking found-footage mystery. The atmospheric slow-build energy flags from time to time, but it’s an immersive scenario that builds steady momentum as Dan’s work and Melody’s investigation bounce the viewer back and forth between 2022 and 1994. Does the show stretch the point-of-view limitations of the concept? Well, sure, but it does so in such assured, imaginative ways that it’s easy enough to skate past the issue. Chief among its assets is the deployment of sound, which makes sense given the source material; this one is best watched with high-quality audio, since the sound effects and music are a huge ingredient for the frightening ambience. Athie delivers a riveting performance, often with little more than facial expressions to convey his unsettled interiority, and he and Shihabi work well together, developing a strange, unlikely chemistry across time and space. The rest of the cast—Donovan, Evan Jonigkeit, Matt McGorry, Ariana Neal, and others—are also fine, with Julia Chan standing out as Melody’s outgoing, troublemaking friend Anabelle. Alas, the show is not afforded the opportunity to entirely resolve its mysteries and loose ends, but given the dark genre, it lands in an appropriate, satisfyingly chilling spot. With Netflix’s recent stock plunge, it’s possible we may see more and more casualties of the crowded streaming-war battlefield, but it’s a shame we didn’t get to experience more of Archive 81′s unique vibe.

 

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