April 28, 2020

The beautiful and tragic world of “Tales from the Loop”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 6:10 pm by chavisory

When I was in creative writing class in high school, whenever we were stumped for a writing prompt or idea, we would be sent to Chris Van Allsburg’s book, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a picture book composed of haunting and richly detailed, but disconnected, pencil drawings.

Even before I knew that the new sci-fi series on Amazon Prime, Tales from the Loop, was actually based on a different series of paintings (those of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, with whom I was not familiar before), it reminded me of what it would feel like if somebody had created something like a coherent narrative encompassing all of the images of Van Allsburg’s book.

Tales from the Loop tells the interwoven stories of several families who live in a town, never named, above an underground experimental facility working with advanced, quasi-metaphysical technology, and the repercussions on all of their lives of their interaction with the cast-off detritus of the research station. Episodes can be understood as standalone stories, and there’s an obvious comparison to be made to shows like the Twilight Zone or the Outer Limits (which many of the more negative reviews have accused it of being a rip-off of), but what it feels more like to me is if Ray Bradbury and Stephen King teamed up to write Lake Woebegone Days, with the emotional tenor of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Others have called it a “gentler” take on sci-fi, and while that’s not quite right, either, it does do something I haven’t quite seen before, which is to plunge us into a world of strange and advanced technology, and then not engage with or explicate the theoretical science of it almost at all, in favor of dedicating the storytelling almost entirely to the emotional fallout of characters’ decision-making about it. The result is often anything but gentle, though it is relentlessly humanistic and emotionally immediate.

One aspect of the storytelling I particularly appreciated is that there is no sense whatsoever, at any point, that anything has to work out right in the end.

Because the thing is, that is not actually a rule in the real world. Things can be fucked up and stay fucked up, beyond the end of an episode, or a season, or forever. Things can go wrong that can never truly be made right.

Even much grimmer and darker shows like the Walking Dead maintain a sense, which ebbs and flows like a tide, that eventually, inevitably, something has to go right for these characters. But this show just has none of that, a lack which allows it to maintain an outrageous degree of suspense for a show so emotionally- and character-driven, and occasionally makes it one of the most terrifying and devastating things I’ve ever seen on television. But the terror comes not from threats posed by disruptive technology or supernatural, external evil or civilization-ending catastrophe, but just from the small and selfish ways in which humans fail each other.

And that’s not to say that nothing good or beautiful ever happens in this story; it does. But every time it does, it’s the consequence of a character proactively, and sometimes painfully, choosing right. Nothing ever feels inevitable about it, and for that, it’s all the more wondrous.

Most of the characters find themselves in trouble not only when they fumble around with mysterious technology they don’t understand (although definitely that, too), but when they attempt to use that technology as a shortcut or escape hatch from being honest with each other or themselves. The thesis of the show isn’t anti-technology, but things go badly when characters try to use technology to evade the fundamental problems of being human. When they manage to make things better for each other is when they face their own deepest hearts and vulnerabilities.

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