There is an exquisite aching beauty and deep, abiding emotional resonance to every single frame in Tales From the Loop.
Inspired by the retro-futuristic-bucolic artwork of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag and drawing its name from the title of his book, Tales From the Loop is an eight-part artwork all of its own, telling vividly-affecting stories in the context of a landscape that looks intimately familiar and yet otherworldly and intriguing all at once.
While each of the eight stories ostensibly sits on its own, they are deeply interconnected with the same characters and places recurring over and over, creating a sense that we are being given privileged access to the lives of people whose lives are full of the same joys and disappointments as the rest of us but who lives in a quite extraordinary place.
So extraordinary in fact that while the series is set in Mercer, Ohio, above a groundbreaking facility known as The Loop but officially designated as the Mercer Center for Experimental Physics, it seems to exists in some strangely intriguing alternate reality where time and physics march to the beat of a quite different and quirky drum.
So different, in fact, that it is almost impossible to pin down the time period in which the series it set.
While much of the town’s streetscape and the architecture of the homes points to a decidedly 1950s setting, there are interesting oddities such as the use of Kylie Minogue’s 2001 hit “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” in the season finale “Home” which is, itself, a musing on time and the way it moves ruthlessly ahead even as we beg it to stop and let us catch our breath.
The series uses time again and again to illustrate how malleable life is and how easily it can tipped on its axis and twisted out of all recognisable form, and how even if we think we want things to change and be different that we may regret having what we wish for realised.
Case in point is the evocative and sometimes playful, sometimes searingly sad episode, Stasis in which gadgets whiz and manifestly discontented teenager May (Nicole Law) discovers a device which allows her to freeze everything around her for as long as she wants.
Using bracelets that seal her and new love interest Ethan (Danny Kang) off from the temporal freezing around them, she is able to craft her own special universe in which homes and clothes and food are there for the taking but where most importantly for her she can create a new and exciting world where everything is untouched by the ennui of her day-to-day-life.
Alas, as she observes, the novelty always wears off, something of which she is painfully aware – “That moment, that wonderful feeling of excitement. Why does it always pass?” – and you are back where you started.
It’s a sobering lesson but one all of have to learn at one point or another since life may have its fair share of beginnings but is composed in far greater quantity of the beige middleness of things where you have to work hard to keep life alive and afresh (or as close as you can manage, anyway).
If there is one thing that sets Tales From the Loop aside from many other modern shows which give into a frenetic need to move on at a consistently manic pace lest viewers get bored and move to another of the many hundreds waiting on various streaming platforms, it’s that it is happier to take the time to tell its stories.
From the opening meditative thoughtfulness of opening episode, “Loop” right through to “Home”, the show never rushes anywhere, preferring to take its time introducing us to the various characters who populate each episode and who recur as one character each time steps to be quite firmly in the spotlight.
The first few minutes of every episode are given over to visually stunning establishing shots – the cinematography is luxuriously ruminative as it lingers on people and the landscape of the town and surrounding countryside with a patiently considerate eye – and to simply letting that episode’s featured character go about their normal business.
One of the most effective uses of this technique is in “Parallel” where the Loop’s security guard Gaddis (Ato Essandoh), who we seen in passing in several episodes, is seen going about the life he leads far from the small booth he calls home during his usually unexciting work day.
In a number of luxuriously, slowly unfurling scenes, we bear witness to his introspective lifestyle but also to the suffocating loneliness that bears down heavily on a man who wants nothing more than a boyfriend but who is so walled up against life that he fails to realise when the very thing he wants presents itself to him.
So much is said in the first third of that episode with lingering shots and little-to-no dialogue that you ache for Gaddis and identify with his desperate longing for connection and his often entrenched inability to make it happen.
One of the prevailing themes of Tales From the Loop is connection, whether familial, romantic, brotherly or friendship, and the show goes deep in what makes connection occur or fail and how, despite all kinds of obstacles, it endures well well beyond the breaking point of most other things.
The humanity at the heart of Tales From the Loop is breathtakingly beautiful and profoundly affecting, joyous and bittersweet and always unstintingly and luminously honest.
Many of the episodes don’t necessarily offer up easy answers or neat solutions but that is how life itself operates, and while the show is all about the capacity of science and technology to materially alter our lives in which of which we can’t initially conceive, it is most focused on the innate humanity of the people at the heart of its stories, people who are decidedly and appealingly ordinary in the midst of the most extraordinary of circumstances.
This is a immersively brilliant show.
Tales From the Loop offers up rich, vibrant landscapes, honesty and truth about the human experience, achingly sad and reflectively content meditations on the human condition, a deep dive into the soul that may not always be easy, but which is never less than astonishingly, arrestingly emotive and thoughtful about this thing called life and how it is rarely, almost never in fact, what we expect it to be.