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Amazon’s ‘Tales From The Loop’ Is A Sci-Fi Dream And A Kinder, Gentler Version Of ‘Black Mirror’

Amazon‘s surreal new series, Tales From The Loop, is produced by Matt Reeves (who’s now directing Robert Pattinson in The Batman), which might spark some nerd intrigue. Even without Reeves’ name, however, the show will likely pack in a built-in audience of sorts due to its source material. The show brings impossibly surreal digital paintings from Simon Stålenhag to life by constructing stories around them, and that additional magic happens courtesy of creator and writer Nathaniel Halpern (Legion, The Killing). And folks who aren’t already aware of Stålenhag but who are fans of Black Mirror (and sci-fi anthologies in general) might find this show to be a kinder, gentler, and more thoughtful option. That’s especially valuable right now, when we really don’t want the bejesus scared out of us, but some softer surrealism might be nice.

To sum up the Tales From The Loop concept, the show doesn’t take place within the same alternate Sweden as with Stålenhag’s work, but within a small Ohio town that’s situated above “The Loop” machinery. Basically, that’s an experimental physics center that unlocks and dig into the universe’s mysteries. In turn, the townfolk are subject to some mind-bending happenings, which gleefully dive into sci-fi realms with the visuals bending like a twisted marriage between Isaac Asimov and Salvador Dali. Stålenhag’s art is wildly popular, to the point where a crowdfunded narrative-art book landed in 2014, so seeing those works come to life in story form will be a treat for existing fans.

If none of that was enough to draw you in, the show emits a futuristic aroma resembling whiffs of many Black Mirror episodes, but it’s a more retrofuturistic take. We see robots and tractors and time travel and open fields and freeways and farmhouses, all meshed together in soft visuals that resemble a moving oil painting. The abundance of technology on display gently intersperses itself with stories about navigating all the resulting strangeness, which eventually gets distilled into meditations on what it means to be human, or not human. However, there’s heart in this Amazon series, and it doesn’t set out to shake viewers to their very cores with shocking and ultimately terrifying happenings. In that way, Tales From The Loop doesn’t sensationalize or dive into cautionary tales about technology like Black Mirror often does (while arguably running itself into the ground at least half the time) but acts in a more reflective manner.

Jan Thijs/Amazon Studios

At its core, I do believe that viewers who gravitate toward Black Mirror will enjoy Tales From The Loop but feel oddly comforted, rather than anxious, by tucking into a few episodes. The energy of Amazon’s series is certainly lower, and calmer, and that’s not a bad thing right now. The episodes do meander but in a pleasant way. They’re almost hypnotic installments in their execution, and for those who (like myself) resist meditations and a quiet mind, these stories might seem ideal to help us focus on worlds and problems other than our own while not walking away in a more stressed-out state.

The show does find threads of inspiration elsewhere, namely from The Twilight Zone, although again, Tales is more transcendent and thoughtful. The comparison mainly arises with Jonathan Pryce’s character. His founder initially brought the Loop to life underneath the otherwise unassuming Ohio town. And his words to the camera often present more questions than answers, but the journey of this series doesn’t end with an arrival at clear-cut conclusions. If you’re looking for answers with this show, you’ll be disappointed. Hell, if you’re seeking action and soul-shattering reveals, you’re out of luck there as well. It’s also worth noting that the series isn’t a pure anthology, given that characters in each individual tale are loosely connected by the Loop, but each of the three episodes offered to critics do hold a somewhat different feel. All affirm humanity in the end, which is something that’s sorely welcomed right now, and that makes Stålenhag’s visuals (as rendered onscreen) feel even more prescient than ever.

If you’re in the market for a thought-stirring (though not overly provocative) examination of how humans can confront unreal challenges with great strength, then it’s worth investing time in Tales From The Loop. Yes, it can be eerie to witness how many of these characters, even while surrounded by people, grow profoundly lonely. That’s not an unfamiliar theme, but their resolve serves as an example during our own ongoing self-isolation. These folks suffer losses, tragic ones, but ultimately, one is left feeling serene, almost optimistic with a sense of calm. The future (as rendered within both the source paintings and the adapted stories) is bright because the characters resolve to see things that way. It’s an unexpected theme to behold during our own uncertain times, and to be sure, this isn’t an entirely easy watch. It’s also for mature audiences, but some of the sights are actually filled with childlike wonder. However you approach the show, you’re sure to feel slightly buzzy coming out of it, at least with the three episodes I’ve screened. And I’ll be watching more once the season fully arrives.

‘Tales From the Loop’ comes to Amazon Prime on April 3.