Tales From the Loop Review: A Haunting and Largely Promising Sci-Fi Tale

Amazon Prime has developed a mostly-positive track record for its original series so far, and it will be really interesting to see how Tales from the Loop ultimately fits into that. Inspired by the work of Simon Stalenhag, the series has quickly established itself as having an unconventional sci-fi edge, blending a mundane rural town with neo-futuristic technology. That concept has already been explored in an art book and a tabletop RPG, and its jump over to television adds some compelling layers to the overall franchise. Straddling the line between a traditional series and an anthology, Tales from the Loop subverts expectations in haunting and emotional ways, even if some episodes might not be as strong as others.

Tales from the Loop follows the citizens of the small Midwest town of Mercer, Ohio, which is stationed around the Mercer Center for Experimental Physics. The center has developed the nickname "The Loop" for the particle accelerator-like machine that sits inside of it, which promises to unlock new secrets about the universe. The Loop quickly causes unexplained phenomena, impacting each of Mercer's citizens in drastically different ways. A cast of recurring characters is weaved in and out of the narrative, including Mercer Center founder Russ Willard (Jonathan Pryce), his daughter in law Loretta (Rebecca Hall), his son George (Paul Schneider), and his grandson, Cole (Duncan Joiner). Another prominent fixture on the show is Gaddis (Ato Essandoh), a young man who serves as a security guard at the Mercer Center.

If you're hoping for specific lore about how and why The Loop works, you probably won't find it in some of the series' episodes. Instead, that ambiguity is used to springboard an array of different, largely standalone scenarios, which are all vaguely tied together in a sci-fi bow. Although there definitely is a sense of an overarching season-long narrative, you can seemingly dip in and out of any episode you want and only miss an occasional reference or Easter egg along the way. This helps Tales from the Loop almost become a sort of understated anthology series, like if The Twilight Zone was extremely into folk music.

While it remains to be seen if the whole season of Tales From the Loop will have that same feeling, that approach to interconnectivity could ultimately work in the series' favor. Each episode serves up a different sort of emotional gut-punch, but some are much more effective than others. The series premiere, which is titled "Loop," tells the story of a young girl's (Abby Ryder Fortson) search for her mother, while playing off of the ambiguity of The Loop in an emotional way. The series' fourth episode, "Echo Sphere," builds its foundation on a really fascinating piece of sci-fi tech, but ultimately lingers in a more depressing territory. The sixth episode, "Parallel," centers around Gaddis, and could very well be the series' answer to Black Mirror's "San Junipero." In the span of 50-ish minutes, "Parallel" tells a brilliantly crafted and unexpected love story, which feels like a queer version of The Notebook in all of the right ways.

Tales from the Loop's performances largely rise to the occasion of its character-driven material, but it's safe to say that there are a few standouts. Fortson absolutely demands your attention in her episode, proving that her career is going to stretch far beyond playing young Cassie Lang in the Ant-Man movies. Hall is perfect as Loretta, and has the ability to ground any episode with even the smallest of a cameo. Essandoh is absolutely exceptional throughout the series, but his performance in "Parallel" could very well be award-worthy.

On a technical level, Tales from the Loop does a stunning job of translating the work of Stalenhag's paintings into live-action without ever making the world feel overly dystopic. While the cinematography occasionally ventures into starkly barren or dark aesthetics, there's a weird vibration of hope and optimism that comes through every visual. It's clear that the crew behind the scenes — which includes showrunner Nathaniel Halpern (Legion, Outcast) and executive producer Matt Reeves (The Batman, War for the Planet of the Apes) — has a deep respect for Stalenhag's source material, even as they transfer it into this new medium. The music, which comes courtesy of Paul Leonard-Morgan (Dredd, Cyberpunk 2077) and Phillip Glass (The Truman Show, The Hours), provides a gorgeous undercurrent throughout the whole series.

At times, there are moments where Tales From the Loop feels like the antithesis of feel-good, escapist television, but that isn't a bad thing. The series is bizarre, understated, and genuinely surprising, and is firmly anchored by an impressively talented cast. The attention to such a specific aesthetic — while also evolving the source material in a new direction — will hopefully delight die-hard Stalenhag fans and newcomers alike.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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Tales from the Loop debuts on Amazon Prime on Friday, April 3rd.