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Tales From the Loop - Season 1 - Review


PLEASE DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE ENTIRE SEASON OF TALES FROM THE LOOP ON AMAZON PRIME!

Amazon uploaded the entire first season of its new sci-fi series, Tales From the Loop, on April 3rd, 2020. It consisted of eight episodes, each focusing on a different character, with several storylines intersecting as the season progresses. It has been compared to Krzysztof Kieślowski’s, Dekalog series and it does share that work's and his "Three Colors" trilogy's interweaving narrative device. Each episode was adapted from the artwork of Swedish artist, Simon Stålenhag, by Nathaniel Halpern and was directed by a different well-known director. Some of the notable cast members include Rebecca Hall and recent Academy Award-nominee Jonathan Pryce. The season seems to tell a self-contained story and a renewal for a second season doesn't seem likely, but, like all of science fiction, one should never count out a follow-up.

YES, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS! Don't worry, each episode segment is broken up with a photo, so you can choose what you do and don’t see.

 Episode 1: Loop 

 First off, I'd like to express that I am aware that Amazon Prime’s corporate affiliation with IMDB.com does spoil the twist in this episode a little. That being said, I am going to write as if that is not an issue (I personally don't mind having twists spoiled for me so that was not a deterrent for me, but not everyone feels that way). It has seemed like forever and a day since Mark Romanek has directed anything not related to the mainstream music world. I believe the last episode of television he helmed was an episode of HBO's Vinyl series. This is why the concept of him realizing the pilot for this anthology series grabbed me so much. The episode and series begins with Jonathan Pryce's character, Russ Willard, giving the audience the expository low down of what the "loop" in the town actually is, basically explaining that we are going to be following a small group of people's viewpoints in this small town and how the Loop has affected all of them in different ways.

In this 1st episode, we meet the characters Loretta (Rebecca Hall), Alma (whom we assume is her mother), her husband, George, Russ' grandson, Cole, and his brother, Jakob. Of course, all of the supporting characters are connected to the family in a fairly convoluted fashion, some of whom we will not get to know better until later episodes. We are also introduced to MCEP, where Loretta believes her mother works. At the risk of losing your attention, I will just get to the crux of the story. Loretta discovers that she is stuck in a time travel paradox loop (thus the title) where she meets her older self, Alma, and is destined to repeat this story over and over again. "Alma" also happens to be Cole's mother, and is suggested to have been a negligent one, choosing her work at the MCEP over him. Luckily, the older Loretta comforts her young self by telling her that in the future, she will have her own kids and that, "Not everything in life makes sense." We are also introduced to a strange black orb called The Eclipse that is meant to be the center of the Loop since...well, all sci-fi plot devices need a physical control device, it seems. After Loretta touches the orb and goes back in time the moment when she was first cursed to be a time traveler in this backwoods world, the older Loretta then tells Cold that she will be more there for him in the future.

There is a lot to chew on for a first episode. The ground is laid for some serious characterization and the question of "are we really in control of our own destiny or just doomed to repeat bad habits against our will?" is presented well. The tone is somber without being condescending, the cinematography and muted color scheme draws you in and reminds you of the artwork this series was inspired by, and and the use of soft piano music is evocative and, of me, captivating. Though I felt Mr. Romanek's direction left the characters feel more distant than sympathetic (which was the major problem I had with his work on Never Let Me Go Again a decade ago), I felt this was a technical marvel that appropriately sets the tone for the season to come, even if the time travel logic seemed slippery (which, granted, it usually does). Still, I didn't decide to watch this series for its grasp of perfectly logical storytelling. There were also pacing issues, which could be an issue for viewers more accustomed to more fast-paced streaming series narratives. Not a bad opening, but could've been more poignant.

   

Episode 2: Transpose 

Directed by Treeless Mountain and Lovesong's So Yong Kim, I found this 2nd episode to be much a more successful attempt at haunting storytelling. In this episode, we now follow Daniel Zolghadri's character, Jakob, whom we were introduced to in the previous episode slightly. We learn that Cole is a talented visual artist who enjoys drawing a local robot (which looks a tad like the Hoth walkers from The Empire Strikes Back) and has a not-so-bright friend named Danny. They go to play in the woods and Danny tells Jakob to jump into what appears to be a empty pod. Jakob enters it and a very ominous sci-fi "whoosh" sound follows. The boys are knocked out and awaken only to discover that they are now in each others' bodies. They don't seem too upset about this and even go to town, running into Russ and convincing him that nothing is wrong. After this, they go to their "new" homes where we learn that they live very different lives. Jakob enjoys being in Danny's much taller, slightly older body and even has a teenage romance with Tatiana Latreille's character, Lauren. Danny, on the other hand, learns from his mother that his failing grades will prevent him from working at the Loop (which we are assuming is meant for those with strong science backgrounds) and will have to work at the quarry instead once school is over. Danny then has a dream of seeing himself. The next day, Danny sees Jakob kissing the girl he wanted to ask out, May, and this prompts him to want to switch back. Unfortunately, Jakob has decided he likes Danny's body and will not switch back, causing them to start fighting and George, to break it up. Strangely, neither one of them wants to actually tell anyone what is really going on.

As the episode progresses, we see that switching back will no longer be an option since the pod is dismantled and sold for scrap metal and Jakob ends in a coma in the hospital after trying to find it to switch into another body, prompting the sale. Danny then decides he now has no choice but to live as Jakob, pretending he no longer wants to draw and do anything but work in the Underground. Of course, this wouldn't be a good sci-fi episode without a final twist: Jakob somehow switched bodies with the robot he was sketching in the beginning. Danny sees him as the robot in the morning and calls out to him, causing the robot to run away sheepishly, as if embarrassed to have been found out. 

While haunting and well-directed, the sci-fi plot devices were a little too convenient and been-there-done-that for me (seriously, this reminded me of a perfectly fine 80s homage body-switching comedy episode on Amazon Prime's forgotten series, Red Oaks, five years back) and tried to feel too much like an episode of Black Mirror that took itself more seriously than it should have, I still felt the performances were strong enough by the ensemble to achieve the poignancy that the previous episode lacked. I enjoyed the relationship between the two boys and found their tragic situation of a talented, but socially awkward boy being jealous of an average, but more attractive loser-type to be all too easy-to-relate-to from a real world perspective. They both had a naturalism that made you want to follow them down their dark paths. I liked how the music cues and muted color scheme were carried over successfully from the first episode. Here, the glacial pacing felt like an asset for the story.

 

 Episode 3: Stasis 

 This third episode follow's Nicole Law's character, May, from the previous episode under the direction of TV vet Dearbhla Walsh (who is known for directing episodes of Penny Dreadful, The Punisher, Fargo, The Handmaid's Tale, Borgia, The Tudors, among many others). May is seen walking with her father by the lake we saw in episode 1. She is wondering why the feeling of love is so fleeting. Luckily, she finds a very "sci-fi" looking device in the lake and walks away with it. You can probably guess that this device might just grant her wish. Despite kissing Jakob in Danny's body in the previous episode, May really wants to be with Ethan, who walks with a limp. May enjoys tinkering with electronic devices and eventually gets the device to work. After putting on a silver ring, gets time to freeze. Shortly after, Ethan comes over to her house and comments on a drawing that Jakob had made of May. They then start kissing and May's mother catches them and is upset by the sight. Giving Ethan one of these special bands, May freezes time to be with Ethan and they have a great time all by themselves without consequence, making love in a street and discovering May's mother in the middle of cheating on her May's father. Of course, this bliss is not meant to last and Ethan takes off his band, prompting May to do the same. They are together again, but it is not the same. Their fleeting love was not meant to last, even if the moment could be manipulated and prolonged.

This episode wasn't as haunting as the previous one was, but it had better character development and the fact that May finds her mother having an affair echoes what she is doing to Jakob with Ethan. I found that more shattering than anything that has come before in this series. Sure, the ending is a tad predictable, but so is the result of most young love affairs. The theme here is that time and moments are not meant to be in stone. Love is just a fleeting moment and dopamine is never meant to stay peaked forever. There has to be reason for love to last and May just doesn't provide that with Ethan, even if she tricks herself into thinking staying in the same happy moment is the best way to exist. Love can live in a frozen world. We should just appreciate every moment we have. These days in self-quarantine, nothing could feel more relevant.

 

 Episode 4: Echo Sphere 

Finding Nemo, Wall-E, and John Carter's Andrew Stanton continues his recent run of successful TV directing jobs with this beautifully directed episode. Here, we see the Loop from Duncan Joiner's character, Cole, and Russ' viewpoints. Yes, we are dealing with two characters this time. We see that they have a lovely relationship. Russ tells Cole that he makes the "impossible possible" at the Loop, which we have already been shown in the previous episodes. After taking Cole home, Russ is in his office when he gets news from Dr. that his condition is terminal. Knowing he doesn't have much time left, Russ takes Cole to a field where they come to a strange device known as an Echo Sphere that looks like a larger version of the orb from Episode 2. Russ tells Cole that it will tell you how many years you will live based upon how many echoes you hear of your voice. Russ hears nothing and has to confess to Cole, Loretta, and George that he will die soon. He gives Loretta his position as his inheritance to her. This upsets Cole and asks if there is anything in the Underground that can help Russ, but there is nothing that can be done. After Russ collapses after driving Cole around, Cole takes matters into his own hands, finding the black orb from Episode 1, but Loretta stops him from touching it and making the same mistake she made. Cole sees Russ in the hospital, but his condition is too far gone and he rambles about his wife, Klara (Jane Alexander), in the rain and dies. Cole asks a woman named Zoe what Russ did for the Loop. This is not answered. Klara whistles a Russ' tune and find the strength to live life as his widow. Cole goes back to the Echo Sphere and sees his long life in front of him as he hears the echoes (including being played in his 40s by the director of Primer and Upstream Color, Shane Carruth). As we view fireflies sparkling like in the beginning, the episode ends. As you can tell, sci-fi is the backdrop, not the focus. This episode is all about death, and seeing your life in perspective, preparing to move on from death. There were some constant elements from previous episodes (even the same music cues), but this one stood on its own. I was hoping Jonathan Pryce would have appeared in more of the episodes, but his story was so beautifully ended here, it was better that they left it this way.

 

 Episode 5: Control 

After episode 4, we had nowhere to go but down and that is exactly the trajectory we fall into with Episode 5. This time, we follow Danny's father, Ed (Dan Bakkedahl of Veep and Life in Pieces). The director here this time is Belgian Tim Mielants, who has directed episodes of Peaky Blinders, Legion, and The Terror, along with the feature film, Patrick.

We see Ed in the hospital while Danny (or Danny's body, really) is in the hospital in the coma we saw in Episode 2. We cut to Ed in the house, teaching boxing, as the power goes out due to a bad breaker. We find out that this might have been caused by a break-in. This prompts Ed to think about protecting his family (one would think having a son in a coma would already have done that, but I digress). After observing his daughter, Beth, being bullied (her robot toy was taken) and saving her, he senses another attempted break-in that night. Nothing happens, even though the front door is left wide open. Police are called, but can do nothing with no evidence. This causes Ed to develop insomnia and tension in his marriage. Ed then purchases a security droid, which eases his mind, but becomes more and more obsessed by it, causing even more tension in the neighborhood. After an intense incident where Danny-in-Jakob's body gets Beth to come out at night, leaving the door open, causing a paranoid Ed to punch a hole through a barn, sending his wife, Kate, and Bath away, afraid to stay with him. Ed then sells the droid back to its original owner, apologizes to Danny's body for letting him down, and fixes the breaker that caused the power outage. He is simply making more of an effort to be a better father and husband and Beth seems to forgive him. You couldn't ask for more than that under those types of circumstances.

Despite strong performances, this was probably the most forgettable episode for me, not really intriguing or advancing the sci-fi mythology in any way. It was nice to see Danny and Jakob again, though. There was lot of dramatic irony in watching Ed try to be a good father figure protecting his family and failing, but I fail to see why the writers felt Ed was a character who should've been explored so closely. The themes of control and family are explored well, but the story didn't have any real payoff and just meandered along.

 

 Episode 6: Parallel 

 Directed by The Discovery and The One I Love's Charlie MacDowell, this episode follows Ato Essandoh's Gaddis, the security guard who works at MCEP. He is trying to fix his tractor in a field when a portal appears and disappears just as quickly. May returns to drop off some parts, but seems ignorant of what Gaddis talks about. After a nice dinner with Loretta and George, Gaddis receives the lost part. He puts it in the tractor, causing a shimmer that seems to transport him in a Star Trek-like fashion to another dimension. He walks into what he thinks is his house and finds his lost lover, Alex, at the piano. There is a knock at the door and another Gaddis (Gaddis #2?) answers. Seems this an alternate reality where the Underground disbanded and the tractor was brought into Gaddis 1's reality.

Without getting too confusing, a love triangle forms between Gaddis 1 and Alex. The Gaddis' try to send Gaddis 1 back to his reality with the tractor, but the machine doesn't work. Gaddis 2 seems to find out about the sexual encounter and argues with Alex about this. Gaddis 1 uses this as a opportunity to write his feelings in his journal, confessing his desire for Alex. He gives Alex the journal, hoping he will feel the same way and run away with him. He waits in a barn for him, where he falls asleep. He awakens to find Gaddis 2 with the jounral. Gaddis 2 explains that Gaddis 1 was a one night stand for Alex, nothing more. Gaddis #1 runs away and buries the journal. He finds himself in a diner in another small town and makes the acquaintance of a handsome man, Kent. They decide to go bird watching together in the forest to find a fabled bird.

Though not really much happens in this episode, storywise, it was pretty hot in its depiction of LGBT love affairs. It was also a clever idea to have Alex cheating on Gaddis with his exact double, which must have been pretty irresistible for him. I must say that I felt this episode felt like a missed opportunity. The directing in the episode was lacking, with the lackluster performances that felt more emotionless than the evocative ones that preceded it. I also didn't buy the alternative reality angle. I understand that Gaddis is more impressive in this new universe, prompting Gaddis 1 to learn courage and how to be a better version of himself by example since he cannot return to his home universe. But I felt it could have been more than overreaching for love and sexual conquest. And the fact that there are two Gaddis-es in this universe, that is Rule #1 for alternative universe sci-fi stories is that there cannot be two different versions of one person in one universe, or else the said universe will collapse. I realize one of the quotes from the very 1st episode was that things don't always make sense, but this ending just felt preposterous and dramatically inert. It did not achieve the feel-good romanticism it was probably going for and just caused confusion (and not of the sexual kind).



Episode 7: Enemies 

Things are finally starting to take shape in the story with this penultimate episode. It was a good fit hiring Ti West of The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers fame (he also helmed some episodes of Netflix's cancelled Chambers and Soundtrack series among several series for FOX, like The Exorcist and The Resident) to flex his sci-fi muscles. In this episode, we follow George's story. We follow him as a child trying to see if a local legend is true, going to with two friends to an island as a good transition from the birdwatching from the previous episode. However, the friends get scared and leave George to his own devices on the island. George finds some electronic devices on the shore, but gets bitten by a sea snake creature trying to put something together. He then sleeps in a hollowed-out tree that he finds what appears to be a bloody handprint on. When he awakes, his arm wound is anything but healing. He hears horrible shrieks and is able to escape the monstrous creature that comes for him b y bashing it with an electronic pole, running out on shore and collapsing as a boat approaches that takes him off of the island. Sadly, George survives the trip, but has to have his arm amputated, which is why the adult George has a prosthetic arm in the present. George cannot look at the traitorous friends anymore and withdraws from socializing. Russ asks him to tell him what he saw and George swears him to secrecy. Russ then fits the robotic prosthetic arm to replace the amputated one. At school, George is teased since some kids thinks he is actually a robot, but he doesn't care, caring only about remembering the shrieking sounds he heard.

We then jump ahead to the present day, but George is still haunted. He talks in his sleep and yells at Cole for playing with an electric pole, one that reminds him of the one he used to hit the monster on the island with. George watches The Creature From the Black Lagoon and the monster reminds him of his monster. His confides in Klara about the shrieking sounds and she tells him the monster was alive and an early version of an AI robot Russ had created. George decides to go back to the island to face his fear. He figures the handprint was made by the robot. At night, he finds a campfire and finally sees the robot, whose shriek isn't like it used to be. They stare at each other and the robot lets out a dimmed hum. Seriously, after all those years on an island, it is amazing the robot could move at all with all of that rust developed. I wasn't surprised at the lack of violence for the ending. Their better days are behind for them both. They now both wounded and weak; no more energy to really be the titular "enemies" anymore. They are more like betrayed and wounded soldiers from a war, frankly. Maybe they never really were enemies. I mean, the robot did not cause George's amputation and George didn't leave the robot there to rot, even though he hit it to get away, which didn't do that much damage, frankly.

I have read some negative reviews of this episode, but I quite liked it. I agreed that George needed more character development throughout the season since a phobia of the shrieking was never disclosed to the audience before this episode (though the prosthetic arm caused some early intrigue), but Parks & Recreation's Paul Schneider's quirky and almost menacing performance throughout the season kind of made up for it for me. I enjoyed the very genre-friendly direction and creepy sound design. I felt this could have made a good horror feature if it had not been so characteristically downbeat (as is Tales from the Loop's fashion). I do wish more hints of George's condition and the legend of the monster had been given to other characters to speak about in other episodes, though. The story was strong enough to illicit that level of foreshadowing, I felt.

 

 Episode 8: Home 

Academy Award-winning actor/director and all-around cultural icon Jodie Foster follows up her directing work on last year's Black Mirror episode by directing the season (and possibly series) finale episode, which attempts to bring all of these stories together, well, home, for one big emotional finale. Emotional for the central family at question, anyway, which puts the question of why so much time was spent on the supporting characters in the first place, who get little affection here.

Cole is now in middle school and we see him talking to his teacher, who seems overly concerned about him. We find that Danny is now using Jakob's body to work at The Underground. Cole wants to see him, thinking he is still Jakob. Danny says he has distanced himself since he feels guilty about what happened. He then finally comes clean with Cole that he is really Danny and Jakob's soul is somehow stuck in the two-legged robot we haven't seen for a few episodes. This barely fazes Cole and he tries to get to Loretta at the MCEP, but is told to wait by a new security guard (since Gaddis is permanently in another dimension), then wanders into the forest when he cannot see her. There, he finds a robot he believes could be the one Danny described to him. Cole insists they walk to the city to find Loretta so she will use her new position to help solve this dilemma. They walk a ways down by the stream, but the Jakob-bot sustains an injury from a fight with another robot and loses some of its leg ligaments and collapses. Cole says his goodbyes to the dying Jakob-bot and he emerges from the forest to a changed world. He goes back to MCEP and the security guard finally is able to contact Loretta. However, Loretta has aged considerably and we learn that George has died some years back.

Loretta realizes that he has gone forward in time by having gone too far down the stream when it has thawed. The now-older Danny finds Cole and apologizes, having been haunted by inhibiting Jakob's body for so many years while Cole was missing and starting a family with it. At school, the teacher from the opening scene reveals to Cole that she is the "second" (or advanced) version of the first AI cyborg that the robot on the island represented and has not aged and has taught his entire family. After this, Cole snaps some photos of his mother and we flash forward to the older Shane Carruth-played Cole that we became acquainted with in Episode 4. Like Danny, Cole now has his own family and they visit the house where he grew up in, which his son has little interest in. They comment on how time flies and we see a final poignant image of Cole snapping his photos.

Despite this valiant attempt at an emotional, yet appropriately sci-fi-style distant finale, there are just too many unresolved plot threads to really call this season a success. After viewing it, I sort of hope Amazon gives it a second season just to wrap up whatever was going on with Gaddis and May. Neither really got closure that the family received. I would've liked to have seen more of George before he died. Though there were hints that Russ controlled the family's destiny with the invention of the AI cyborgs, this element was not explored as well as it could've been. Doesn't anyone else notice that the teacher was an AI? Are there more in the works in the town? Again, this anti-climax might seen aloof and elusive, but the slow-paced season demands more closure and character development than what the writers were willing to divulge here. Will there be more adventures for Danny or Cole? What else does Loretta know about the town's mysteries? Will anyone else visit the Echo Sphere? And whatever happened to Ethan after he returned to normal time? Will we get an episode dedicated to the new security guard? Did Ed, Beth, or Kate ever learn Danny's secret? Did whatever was in Danny's body ever wake up in the hospital? And why didn't they get Shane Carruth to direct an episode?

As much as I enjoyed this season, the dangling plot threads left hanging deserve more than what they are getting here, no matter how much intentional dead air the creators keep throwing in our face to distract us. Like the town itself and the artwork that inspired it, Tales From the Loop feels like a work in progress. Let's hope we get to see how it turns out.

 

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