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Over the past few years, “The Tale of Two Wolves,” Native American in origin, has supplanted “The Scorpion and the Frog” as the go-to on-the-nose allegory for Hollywood scribes. Short version: Inside every person there’s a battle between two wolves, one who’s righteous and good, the other who generally suuucks. Which one wins? Twist! It’s the one you feed.
It’s fitting, because inside seemingly every TV writer, there are two wolves, the one raised on Stephen King books and adaptations and the one raised on Twin Peaks and David Lynch films.
Most of the time, the Stephen King wolf wins, but if we’re just sticking to Netflix, The OA, Sense8 and Dark prove that occasionally the David Lynch wolf can be triumphant. If the Lynch wolf dies and you replace him with a Steven Spielberg wolf, you get Stranger Things. If the two wolves basically break even, you maybe get Brand New Cherry Flavor, though it felt like the creative team of that show thought they were favoring the Lynch wolf. For a lupine binary, it’s very complicated.
Put Netflix’s new eight-episode drama Archive 81, adapted loosely from the podcast of the same name, in that category of shows where the creators clearly think they’re achieving a Lynch/King wolf balance without ever going Lynchian enough on either an emotional or surrealistic level. It’s pulpy and creepy, never taking that next step to scary and disturbing, but as recent podcast-to-TV adaptations go, it’s more visually and narratively purposeful than most.
Developed for TV by Rebecca Sonnenshine and primarily directed by Rebecca Thomas, Archive 81 focuses on Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie), a restoration expert for the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. Dan is obsessed with literally and metaphorically recovering the seemingly irretrievable in large part because he’s haunted by the death of his family in a mysterious fire when he was young.
With the exception of his best friend Mark (Matt McGorry), host of a popular occult podcast, Dan tends toward self-isolation and depression, which makes him exactly the wrong person (or, in storytelling terms, the right person) for an odd job offered by the wealthy Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan). Virgil needs somebody to restore a collection of damaged ’90s-era video cassettes filmed by a grad student (Dina Shihabi) doing an oral history of a strange apartment complex that fell victim to a mysterious fire. And no, that fire thing isn’t a coincidence.
The catch: The video is apparently so fragile it can only be worked on at Virgil’s remote, rural compound, a Brutalist concrete structure filled with endless hallways, secret rooms and a peculiar lack of cell signal/Internet access. In no time, Dan is becoming obsessed with Melody’s tapes, which tell an unfolding tale that involves a malevolent cult, pretentious modern opera and some rudimentary New York City history — and he’s rightfully questioning his own sanity. Before you can say, “This sounds a bit like The Shining by way of Rosemary’s Baby,” Archive 81 is making specific references to The Shining, because Archive 81 is nothing if not aware of its obvious influences.
As she did on the otherwise less successful podcast-to-TV offering Limetown, Thomas swiftly establishes a somber and ominous mood driven by a washed-out color palette and unnerving sound design. The series is able to have some fun with the basic trappings of the found-footage genre, augmenting Melody’s recordings with material from a lost 1950s horror anthology series and using a differently styled archival snippet — local news coverage, flashy commercials, etc. — to start each episode.
I wish Archive 81 were a bit smarter or more committed to either the historical elements or the nostalgia for a world of shoddy VCR taping and Camcorder cinematography. Bizarrely, Kyle Mooney’s Netflix comedy Saturday Morning All Star Hits! does a lot of the same things, but gets more of the details right and, frankly, manages to be much stranger overall.
Dan’s increased immersion in Melody’s world gives the show an excuse to avoiding going full found-footage for its flashbacks, but even with that justification, I don’t think Archive 81 uses the found-footage format consistently. It’s not always clear if we’re watching what Melody filmed or simply her story from a generic, third-person omniscient perspective. In other words, there’s a lot of cheating going on. And perhaps the best illustration for how badly Archive 81 is starving its Lynch wolf is that Dan is assigned to restore a collection of unlabeled, warped tapes and he miraculously selects them in completely linear order and the harm to the tape manifests itself only in teasing bouts of static — pay close attention to the shapes in the familiar snow — rather than in the removal of any key plot points.
Dan is working very hard on cracking the puzzle of the tape, but Archive 81 is way too insecure to ask the viewer to do any work at all. The handholding cheapens every revelation in the series, which only ceases to be predictable in the last couple of episodes — and only then because it wades into silliness in lieu of surrealism.
As the story’s dual unraveling protagonists, Shihabi and Athie are excellent, layering nuance into long stretches where both are asked only to stare at weird things in wide-eyed horror or confusion. Shihabi was my favorite part of the first season of Amazon’s Jack Ryan, while Athie has been a valuable element of ensembles like Sorry for Your Loss and The Get Down, and it’s a pleasure to see them confidently holding down a show in which the style and premise could have easily superseded performance.
Other standouts include Ariana Neal as Jess, a possibly endangered young resident of the building Melody is chronicling, and Evan Jonigkeit as an instantly suspicious college professor. Affecting an inconsistent accent that is maybe supposed to be Southern, Donovan conveys the perfect lack of trustworthiness, almost as if you’re supposed to constantly remember that he’s a well-liked character actor adding his name to a strange TV show instead of a character in a scripted drama.
Even if I called the last couple of Archive 81 episodes silly, the series builds pretty well. By the second or third episode, you’ll probably have figured out the key points of what’s going on and probably will have identified a movie, TV show or book that did the same thing better. By an episode or two later, you’ll probably see what the shape of the rest of the season is and then by the cliffhanger in the finale, you’ll be curious where a follow-up season would go. Whether the difference between being “gripped” and “curious” might have been bridged by feeding that Lynch wolf a little more, I can’t say for sure.
A concluding warning: We’re about five years away from most writers phasing out the Lynch wolf in favor of a Harry Potter wolf. You know it’s coming. Adjust expectations accordingly.
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