'Tales From the Loop': TV Review

Emotional and well made, but not for those who need answers.
4/3/2020

With a cast featuring Jonathan Pryce and Rebecca Hall, Amazon's new sci-fi series has giant robots and strange orbs on its periphery, but appears more interested in human matters.

In Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag's paintings, elements of science fiction are both a provocative hook and an intrusion. The landscapes and rural tableaus are punctuated by robots or unexplained orbs or looming postmodern towers with no architectural connection to the quaint suburbia of the foreground. With every canvas, you're left to ponder whether the unexplainable genre elements are the interlopers in our banal reality or if our banality is the interloper in something far more epic and advanced.

Based on episodes sent to critics, Nathaniel Halpern's adaptation of Stålenhag's book Tales From the Loop, a collection of those paintings, settles on something closer to the former. The story has been transplanted from Sweden to the small town of Mercer, Ohio, home to the Mercer Center for Experimental Physics and a mysterious underground facility known as The Loop. Are The Loop and an assortment of high-tech machinery scattered around Mercer the result of something extraterrestrial or extradimensional, or a localized leap in scientific advancement? Their purpose, according to Jonathan Pryce's Russ, is "to unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe."

Oh. Just that? All indications are that viewers looking for concrete answers and sci-fi mythologizing are going to be frustrated by Tales, which barely acknowledges the rusted-out futuristic eyesores on the horizon — the best sci-fi imagery in the series is translated directly from Stålenhag's art. Instead, the drama dwells on concerns that are very human in origin, sometimes using sci-fi elements as a catalyst and sometimes barely integrating them at all. On a spectrum of current sci-fi television tackling the nature of existence, the series is almost a polar opposite to the exposition-heavy, laid-bare mechanics of HBO's Westworld, with Devs (FX on Hulu) floating somewhere in the middle, spelled out yet blurry.

If you notice critics struggling to describe Tales, it's probably because we've been given only the first, fourth and sixth installments of the eight-episode season, leaving us to guess at the shape of this elephant based on body parts that may not be representative. The three episodes have three different directors: Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo), Andrew Stanton (WALL-E) and Charlie McDowell (The One I Love). They have three different cinematographers: Jeff Cronenweth, Ole Bratt Birkeland and Luc Montpellier. Rebecca Hall, as a woman with some authority within The Loop, and Paul Schneider, as her husband, have featured roles in each, but don't necessarily star in any, giving the impression that Tales From the Loop is a loosely interconnected anthology.

The absence of a full season of episodes to review somewhat fittingly creates the sense that the human emotions highlighted in the series are primarily about loss and, yes, absence. If this turns out not to be the case, my apologies, but stories about missing parents, death and loneliness predominate, setting up Tales as either a perfect, or perfectly unpleasant, show for viewers who are in quarantine or some form of isolation and turning to our audiovisual technology to fill a void.

As to how these three chapters actually play, it's mixed.

The first episode is driven by a solidly intense and soulful performance by 12-year-old Abby Ryder Fortson, probably best known from the Ant-Man films, as a girl whose seemingly simple search for her lost mother turns out to be extremely complicated. Fortson is an empathetic center, unifying Cronenweth's expertly chilly photography and a score of such relentless arpeggios that my notes read, "Who's doing such a blatant Philip Glass impression?"  right up until the credits revealed that Glass (along with Paul Leonard-Morgan) was the actual composer. It's a mournful hour that raises more questions than it answers, which I'm sure is meant to prepare you for what's ahead.

The Stanton-directed episode — Halpern scripted the entire series — offers even fewer answers, but given that it's about mortality, that isn't surprising. Pryce's performance, despite room for histrionics, is quiet and beautifully weary, and he's paired well with another of the cast's juvenile actors, Duncan Joiner. It's an episode of grace notes rather than big twists or plot points, and I'll confess that I grew a little impatient waiting for a sci-fi pivot that never really occurs, or perhaps for a deeper take on the unfathomable inevitability of death. It's definitely moving, but only a little, though I'd wager this is an episode that plays better in the context of the full series.

Easily the best of the three episodes, "Parallel" has a great central turn by Ato Essandoh as a solitary Mercer Center for Experimental Physics security guard who becomes part of the kind of love triangle that I'm pretty sure I've never seen on TV before. It's an episode in which conceptual science fiction is integral, even if the special effects are limited to a hovering tractor that never becomes properly operational. The installment explores a lovely and bittersweet romance, but it also exposes how nebulous the world of the show is. If you like your science fiction in pointed allegorical mode, you may share my frustration with the fuzzy '70s/'80s period setting and how little this hour wants to address what it means for Essandoh's character to be a gay black man in a context that resembles an Edward Hopper painting more than a real, grounded world.

Maybe those other five episodes will offer that grounding, and the necessary subtext. Maybe they'll be full of connective tissue that explains more about The Loop and the ordinary people who live above it. Or maybe, like that tractor in "Parallel," the series is really intended to just hover as a source of fascination and loose exploration without being able to plow your field, intellectually speaking.

Cast: Rebecca Hall, Paul Schneider, Ato Essandoh, Jonathan Pryce
Creator: Nathaniel Halpern, based on the book by Simon Stålenhag
Premieres: Friday (Amazon)