There’s a lot of atmosphere – cool, still atmosphere – in Tales From The Loop. It has presence, feeling, weight. Strange as its world is, it seems like a place that exists. It’s a great setting for a show. It’s a shame, then, that very, very little happens in that setting. You might kindly say this show is meditative, which is a polite way of saying it’s a bit dull.
Tales From The Loop is based on a collection of retro-futurist paintings by Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, which depict scenes of Scandinavian countryside, but dotted with space opera elements, like robots and strange alien craft. They have an intriguing mix of mundane country life and science fiction excitement. The loose story tying the pictures together is that they’re all snapshots of a town that houses the world’s largest particle accelerator, The Loop, buried deep underground. That particle accelerator causes unusual things to happen.
That set-up carries over to the show. A small US town is entirely reliant on The Loop. It’s the source of most people’s employment. What exactly The Loop does isn’t clear, but it causes curious events, like parallel universes and time travel. Nobody is especially surprised when The Loop does strange things, suggesting it’s been making the town screwy for quite some time. You can feel that this is a world where sci-fi oddities are the norm.
Each episode focuses on a different resident of the town and operates as a standalone story. As they’re based on paintings, it’s maybe appropriate that they give you very little story to work with. You are presented with some images – gorgeously shot, in chilly tones – and then left to fill in much of the narrative yourself. You can stare at the beautiful detail indefinitely and wonder what might be happening elsewhere, but you won’t necessarily be told.
Each of the three episodes we watched (one, four and six were made available to review) hung on a simple premise. In one, a girl has lost her mother. In another, a dying man tries to explain mortality to his grandson. In the other, a man who is too nervous to fall in love meets a parallel universe version of himself who is deep into a relationship. They’re perfectly reasonable set-ups, but none really go anywhere surprising or develop the characters in original ways. The show gives itself a lot of room to luxuriate in quite thin ideas. The show’s writer, Nathaniel Halpern, wrote a number of episodes of the highly imaginative superhero series Legion, but there’s little of that show’s wit and adventure here.
There is a lot of quality in this show. The cast, including Jonathan Pryce and Rebecca Hall, is extremely talented and can fill in some unsaid history. The visuals, again, are deeply beautiful. This is a world where so much could happen, yet it does not. It’s a really interesting idea to present a town where the extraordinary has become ordinary, but Tales From The Loop leans too hard into that and makes the extraordinary seem just humdrum.