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An old man — the director of the mysterious lab at the center of the series — and his grandson stare into the Echo Sphere, which appears to have crashed in a field in Ohio. Photo: Amazon Studios

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Amazon’s Tales from the Loop show tries to adapt a series of mysterious, viral paintings

Simon Stålenhag’s evocative art has been rendered as something ponderous and opaque

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Tales from the Loop, a new streaming series on Amazon Prime, is based on an annotated collection of art by Simon Stålenhag. The illustrator’s images, many of which went viral in 2014, imagine idyllic scenes from the Swedish countryside mixed with robots and fearsome, alien technology. But do they make for good TV?

I previewed three episodes of the series, and each left me feeling uneasy and confused. Only one of them ends with anything close to a resolution, while the other two trail off and ran out of steam. They raise intriguing science-fiction scenarios, but lack the satisfying plot twists of shows like The Twilight Zone or The X-Files. The sense of unease isn’t altogether unpleasant, but Tales from the Loop lacks a sense of progression, internal logic, or a desire to reveal more of its underlying chaos as time goes by. Instead, it just sort of meanders.

In adapting Stålenhag’s original work, showrunner Nathaniel Halpern (Legion, The Killing) transports the setting from Sweden in the 1980s to Ohio in the 1980s, but the concept remains the same. Below a tiny town is a massive, secretive scientific installation that employs most of the local inhabitants. No one talks about what goes on down there, but topside, it enables incredible feats of engineering, including cybernetic implants, anti-gravity propulsion, and clean energy.

But there are … drawbacks, let’s say.

[Ed. note: This review contains spoilers from Tales from the Loop’s non-contiguous first, fourth, and sixth episodes.]

A woman, the daughter of the director and the inheritor of the lab upon his death, stands in front of an amorphous sphere made of dark gray stones. Photo: Amazon Studios

For those exposed to the mysterious laboratory in Tales from the Loop, side effects may include the following:

Temporal distortion

The first episode involves a young girl who returns home from school and finds that her home — and her mother — have been pulled into the ether and dissolved into thin air. Instead of the world she knows, she’s thrust forward to the same location 30 or 40 years later, where she meets herself — as played by Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Town) and her own young son.

Quantum uncertainty

The sixth episode introduces the laboratory’s main security guard, played by Ato Essandoh (Altered Carbon, Dark Phoenix). In attempting to start an old piece of anti-gravity farming equipment, he gets teleported to an alternate timeline where he meets his own doppelgänger, who happens to have taken a sexy Spanish lover. The result is one of the more bizarre love triangles I’ve ever seen.

Death

The fourth episode centers on the director of the underground laboratory, played by Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes, Game of Thrones), who learns that he is terminally ill. We are also introduced to the Echo Sphere, a rusty ball that you can shout into, and hear the reverberations of your own aging voice through time. In the end, the director leaves the laboratory to his daughter (Hall’s character from episode 1) before thrusting himself bodily into a weird floating sphere made of moon rocks.

The security guard from the laboratory in front of his pet project, an anti-gravity farm implement. Photo: Amazon Studios

Confusion and mystery are their own kind of pleasure, but when plotlines don’t lead to any conclusions, they run the risk of veering into the absurd. Imagine Sherlock Holmes running around observing things, and then getting bored and playing his violin all night instead of actually solving his latest mystery.

Aside from episode 6, the other two Tales from the Loop episodes provided to critics didn’t really go anywhere. They felt confusing merely for confusion’s sake. The characters experienced little to no growth, and Stålenhag’s world of robots, weird physics, and tricks of the eye didn’t make any more sense than when I started. My experience at being confused could be the side effect of digesting three non-contiguous episodes for review. On the other hand, all three episodes are connected in small ways, and include many of the same characters. There may be major plot points that I’m just oblivious to. But the issues feel deeper than that. I could see the whole series being an anthology, with each installment more perplexing than the last.

The program’s obtuseness extends beyond the plots themselves to nearly every performance. When I was a child, I went to summer camp at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. Also known as Fermilab, the national laboratory housed the Tevatron, the largest particle accelerator in the world (before the Large Hadron Collider went online in Switzerland in 2008). The only notable features in the local flatlands are a single A-shaped office building, and a herd of endangered American bison eating the grass. The sights are almost alien. But none of the people I met at Fermilab — not even the hardened government scientists who stalked its gently curving halls — were anywhere near as unusual as the characters in this show.

The daughter of the director stares intently off camera, a grim look of determination on her face. Photo: Amazon Studios

Everyone in Tales from the Loop seems nervous all the time, like their shoes are going to turn into rabbits and bite their own feet. More challenging still is the fact that nearly everyone seems to speak in short, clipped sentences. Pryce is the best at the delivery, owing to the unshakable gravitas he’s had since the 1990s, when he was driving Infinitis around in 30-second commercials. But as far as the rest of the cast goes, all these pregnant pauses are left lingering in the air like farts. Actors turn and stare out the window, into the middle distance, or at each other for long periods of time. The pace of the show is undermined by an enforced ennui that is, frankly, very difficult to handle for prolonged periods.

The other thing the scientists at Fermilab had was a purpose. They were doing research into quarks and leptons, smashing atoms together to find the smallest particles in the universe. It was heady stuff, but at least they took the time to try and actually explain how it benefited people. That’s why they invited baby Charlie in for summer school. Stålenhag’s work is filled with snapshots of an alternate past, of giant robots and bizarre technologies that seem to be improving people’s lives. The folks who work underground all keep talking about the important work they’re doing, but how their work connects to the world above is beyond me.

The entire first season is eight episodes long, and I’m curious to see where it all goes. But after what I’ve seen, there’s a strong possibility that it might go nowhere. Tales from the Loop could ultimately live up to its name, running itself in circles for so long that audiences will — like me — literally tire of it before they reach the end.

Tales from the Loop premieres April 3 on Amazon Prime.


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