'Dark': TV Review

A simultaneously on-the-nose and baffling puzzle.
11/30/2017

Netflix's German supernatural drama has some of the mysterious elements of 'Stranger Things,' but none of the warmth, humor or characterizations.

Every week, Netflix unleashes a vast repository of interesting-looking new international TV shows that go under-promoted outside of the ominous warning, "Netflix has 571 new TV titles you might be interested in."

It's easy to see, however, why Netflix is giving a larger push to the new German supernatural thriller Dark.

Playing into Teutonic stereotypes, Dark could be pitched as a brooding European take on Stranger Things, with all of the precision-engineered, universe-bending mysteries and 1980s nostalgia, but none of the warmth or humor or relatable characterizations. Through five of its first 10 episodes, Dark is tremendously successful at making me unsure of what's going on and how its world is operating — and largely unsuccessful at making me care beyond that.

Created by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, Dark has a plot that's either really simple to describe in brief or impossible to explain in depth. The small town of Winden is essentially home to two things: a looming nuclear power plant on the verge of shuttering and a series of subterranean caves. After a boy goes missing, Winden is already on edge, but when a second kid vanishes and a mysterious dude in a hood appears out of the forest, it becomes clear that the events of the present relate to a very similar set of disappearances 33 years earlier. It's a saga that intertwines four families in unexpected ways. There are also dead sheep, creepy power outages and strange, dated commercials for German candy bars.

See? That was fairly simple. It doesn't explain, however, what Dark has to do with time-travel or wormholes or whatever the device is that's allowing Dark to simultaneously exist in 2019 and 1986. That span has nothing to to with futuristic sci-fi and everything to do with the idea of 33-year time cycles and tying the backdrop in to the period around the Chernobyl meltdown, which infuses the series with mournful paranoia if you're conscious of it, but will probably be a total non-factor for a younger target audience clamoring to know where the portal to the Upside Down is hiding.

I assume a specific answer will eventually be given, but in the early episodes the show opts to just layer on the portentousness with a trowel, beginning with the Albert Einstein quote, "The distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion," but continuing immediately into a voiceover that basically says the exact same thing. And it doesn't stop. Dark is the sort of show where, if the teenage characters are sitting in an English class, you know the teacher will be lecturing on the theme of that episode and where, if one character is rehearsing a high school play, that, too, will speak directly to the theme of the series. People are so committed to telling each other and viewers that everything is connected that they even sign letters, "Everything is connected." Episodes are titled things like "Double Life" and "Past and Present" and "Secrets" and "Lies" and regarding the town's, um, secrets a character announces, "Behind everyone's friendly smile there's nothing but lies!" Were it not for weighty dialogue about mazes and interconnectivity and doppelgangers and history repeating and echoes of time, Dark could almost be a 10-hour silent film.

Even if you ignore the dialogue completely, the opening credits are mirrored, kaleidoscopic images, the visual scheme is dominated by clocks and multiple episodes utilize split-screens — and just in case you aren't picking up on the clues when they're presented, Ben Frost's score underlines everything quite aggressively. It's all in the name of making sure that Dark is simultaneously on-the-nose and baffling.

Directed by bo Odar and shot by Nikolaus Summerer, the series is also consistently striking, and while the visual motifs of the impenetrable forest and the gaping maws of various caves and the towering power plant smoke stacks are repetitive, they're effective. The title of Dark is to be taken very literally and between scenes set at night, scenes set in the rain and scenes set in the rain at night, there's very little tonal variation, which won't cause problems for viewers who like their mysteries monomaniacal and rarely pausing for character growth.

As the show progresses, there's more time spent in 1986, with younger versions of several of the principals, and I found myself liking those scenes more because the characters back then don't know they're part of a multi-generational saga of loss, lust and regret and therefore can occasionally make jokes or feel like real people. Everybody in the contemporary side of the story is some variation of grief-stricken, tortured or tormented, limiting my interest in which grown-ups were having affairs and which of their teen kids are secretly in love and who's related to the senile old people stumbling through town muttering, "The beginning is the end and the end is the beginning" because that's the theme of the show. Every performance is intense and fine, but none is memorable, and my notes were a nightmare of confusing interchangeable pieces of the ensemble until I realized that was partly intentional and partly irrelevant. There's a grimly determined chief of police, a grimly determined hotel owner, a bunch of grimly determined high school students and several grimly determined nuclear plant employees. And that guy in the hood? He's grimly determined, too.

Dark is also likely to prompt comparisons to the remarkable Les Revenants, with its focus on disappearance and the emotional wreckage left behind, but while the French drama led with character and spirituality, its German counterpart is dominated by plot. I grew initially frustrated at how little Dark was showing me about its characters and how little investment I was feeling in them, though the middle of the season produced some sympathy that I can't explain without spoiling the twists.

"Life is a labyrinth," a character observes, apropos of everything. "Some people wander around their whole lives looking for a way out, but there's only one path and it leads you ever deeper. You don't understand it until you've reached the center."

Halfway through the first season of Dark, I definitely don't understand it, but I guess I'll eventually keep pursuing the answers, stumbling through the dark with interest but no real affection.

Cast: Oliver Masucci, Karoline Eichhorn, Jördis Triebel, Louis Hofmann, Maja Schöne, Daan Lennard Liebrenz, Andreas Pietschmann, Deborah Kaufmann, Hermann Beyer, Moritz Jahn
Creators: Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)

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