Let’s talk about… Tales from the Loop

Angus McNicholl, Louis Calvert, Yana Koleva

Let’s talk about… Tales from the Loop
August 14, 2020 Angus McNicholl, Louis Calvert, Yana Koleva

Louis: The tone, setting and visuals hooked me almost from the start. It’s quite moody and mysterious; it reminded me a little of a Twin Peaks vibe, in the way it used the location as part of the narrative oddness. Initially the focus in the first episode on younger actors Abby Ryder Fortson (Loretta) Duncan Joiner (Cole) made me wary, as kids in TV series’ aren’t always the best, but they were excellent. 

I’ll be honest: I watched the first episode twice because I was sure I’d missed some vital scenes by blinking or zoning out, but on second viewing I realised I hadn’t. It just really was rather vague and mysterious in places — and that’s not a bad thing, necessarily. It doesn’t really go to any effort to really try to take that mystery anywhere though, and by Episode 3 I was a little confused as to where the series was going.


Angus: I’ve been aware of Tales from the Loop for some time. As an admirer of Simon Stalenhag’s magnificent artwork and also through the roleplaying game (RPG) of the same name developed by Nils Hintze. I had no idea that the TV series was even in development until it turned up on Amazon Prime!

This is not a fast-paced action sci-fi thriller we’re watching. It’s slow, thoughtful, beautifully shot, lovingly planned out. We are introduced to a sleepy little town in Idaho with each episode exploring the lives of one or two of the characters. I found the first episode to be thought provoking, and the second to be profoundly sad. There is no action, no running, no guns; everything just feels very… documentary. We have people living and working in the vicinity of the Loop, while all around is littered weird, cast-off technology. There is no attempt to explain, only to observe. It is a beautiful observation of the 80s that never was.


Yana: Before watching the series, I imagined it would be a Dark-esque or Stranger Things type of story, and although I very much enjoyed both of those, the moment when I realised I was wrong felt profoundly refreshing. Tales from the Loop felt more like an experimental arthouse series than a sci-fi one. I’m not entirely sure what the genre is and I quite like that. Initially I was not fully convinced by the first episode, but I am glad I kept watching because midway through the second one, I was absolutely hooked. I had to sit in silence for a while after a few of the episodes; it was a beautiful tear-jerking experience and a real treat for the senses.


Louis: Honestly, the themes are pretty much exactly the same as you’d get in any decent drama on a broad scale, and that’s pretty much all each episode is. Love, loss, stupidity, getting what you wished for but not what you wanted, betrayal, and so on. It doesn’t really seem to me to have any sort of unifying themes at all; it’s almost entirely random from episode to episode, as far as I can tell. I can’t even honestly say it’s ‘sci-fi’ or ‘sci-fantasy’ themed, because — despite having robots and parallel worlds and strange things happening — that’s entirely just a plot device to tell a strange story. The only interconnection is a shared set of characters, but even then it’s functionally an anthology series more than a plot-driven series. I can’t even tell you who it was aimed at; episodes varied randomly between teen angst, crippling personal loss, child-centric views of the world, adult relationships, death, and really strange time-travelling. It’s pretty random.

Angus: If you’re expecting the next Stranger Things, or Dark, you are going to be disappointed. There is no archvillain. Each episode is linked by a shared cast of characters, and the location around the Loop, but that’s about it. To me it’s high science fiction; people dealing with unfathomable technology. But these are just plot devices, as Louis says, to tell interesting and weird stories about people. 


Louis: That’s actually a great point. It’s in many ways the antidote to the Stranger Things formula; and for that, it’s a welcome breath of change.


Yana: The themes that were explored here are definitely not original, but I’d say that they are intentionally common and relatable. They’re the same issues that we find in ancient Greek literature and the same ones that many texts since then have reimagined and interpreted in the language of the time they were created in.

I liked that each episode was dedicated to different characters and focused entirely on telling one story at a time, and effectively drawing the viewer’s attention to the theme of that episode. This made me feel like I was in the theatre, watching a selection of heart-wrenching short plays. It also established the ‘tales from the Loop’ as a series of parables, or a gallery of universal human issues, all wrapped around a mysterious orb. ‘The Loop’ remained a mystery, like life itself. To me it comes across as the primordial soup that we emerge from, take a few leaps around in attempt to perpetuate our existence, and then submerge back into — like Cole’s grandfather in his poetic last moment amongst the living. 

This is where the main theme lies: in the cycle of life and death, the spirit of trauma, the recurring human issues that continue to haunt us as an integral part of the gift of consciousness, generation after generation in an endless loop. And to seal this, we have a blend of stylistic elements and signifiers of different time periods. A bit of 80s, a dash of the 60s, and a bunch of futuristic tech makes for a good sense of timelessness and universality.


Louis: I liked almost everything about it. The acting was good throughout, especially Rebecca Hall’s Loretta who managed to do a brilliant slice across parenting, being an obsessive scientist, having her own personal loss story, and meeting her younger self in Episode 1, all in a very honest way; not likable, necessarily, but utterly believable. I also highly rated both Daniel Zolghadri (Jakob) and Tyler Barnhardt (Danny) from the second episode for doing just about the best representation of teenage boys I’ve seen in a long time. Duncan Joiner’s Cole was a standout in every scene he was in too. I also want to applaud the inclusion of LGBT characters, especially in Episode 6. The location shooting was great; it really amped up the unsettling, odd quality of the show. The directing and filmography, for me, was more suited to a big-screen format than a made-for-tv series, and I think that’s great in many ways since the camerawork added a lot to the vibe without characters having to do a ton of exposition to hammer home the oddness of everything. 


Angus: I like almost everything too… Almost, but I’ll get to the issues I have in a moment. I liked the slow pace, the unhurried mundanity offset against the weird events. I liked the stories told. I liked the fact that the series didn’t feel the need to explain everything by the end of the episode, or even the season; in fact I liked that it offered no explanation for anything at all! 

Each episode was just an observation of someone’s life, mostly centered around one family, but not entirely. The normality of everyday life juxtaposed with beautifully shot visuals. Each episode forms part of a wider patchwork of story, but the writer doesn’t hit you over the head and say ‘this is the order that you need to see these bits in’, you are left to assemble the timeline yourself. We move forward and back in time. We see Lorretta as a young girl, and as an old woman; we get a sense of her life, and the life of her son, Cole, who she first meets as a young girl when he tries to help her find her way home.


Louis: I think that’s something I was trying to figure out, but couldn’t find the words for. The “unhurried mundanity”, as you put it, is something I too really enjoyed.


Yana: I just loved it. Despite all of the loose ends, it felt complete. Pretentious and unoriginal as it may sound, I think that something very important was said through the pieces of the puzzle that were intentionally left out. That something being: “explaining all of that would distract from the main point and diminish the meaning of what we are actually trying to say here”. 

I resonated quite a bit with Cole’s character. His struggle with processing the loss of his grandfather, followed by his effort to get his brother back to the way he was that led him to miss out on everything else, really spoke to me, and I thought it was done very well. Losing a loved one for the first time, especially when you’re young, is a powerful slap that bursts your safe, pink bubble. It suddenly makes you realise to a full extent that time does pass, things do change, regardless of whether you like it or not, and you absolutely cannot revert that however hard you try. And if you obsess over preserving the moment, you’ll probably miss the opportunity to truly live; so it is best to accept what you cannot control and come to terms with the fact that ‘tomorrow’ is not guaranteed. This is the message I got from Cole’s story and, of course, I am interpreting it based on my own experiences. But I reckon that was the point of the overall vagueness in the series: to allow room for interpretation and relatability. 

I was also very moved by the lovely soundtrack (which I am listening to as I write this) and the beautiful soft colours and contrast that gave the picture a bit of a filmic look. Surprisingly, the futuristic technology fit into this magnificently melancholic atmosphere rather seamlessly and I really liked that. 

Louis: Sadly, I disliked every episode after the first (sorry!) For me it was a loose collection of unrelated knock-off Twilight Zone/Outer Limits/Black Mirror/Eerie Indiana fan-fiction stories with an unwelcome edge of erotic teen angst. Each episode was fairly interesting at first, but not a single one of them went anywhere but exactly where it seemed like it would from the start. Each episode, for me, was a missed opportunity to make something really outstanding and original. They assembled a great cast, great locations, excellent effects and directing, developed a potentially compelling concept in Episode 1, and then used all that on what I felt were terribly mediocre (at best) stories. 

There’s even one episode that inexplicably (despite the sci-fi underpinning of every other episode) is about an elderly man dying of cancer and the impact that has on his grandson. It’s a good episode in that the acting is brilliant — especially from Duncan Joiner as the young Cole facing losing the granddad he clearly adores — but the episode was bizarre for its place in this series. If that episode had been in a more traditional series rather than the odd anthology format, it would have been a poignant, even beautiful character development piece; but as it was it felt largely pointless within the context of the show. 

I also really want to highlight that I felt immensely uncomfortable watching two school-age kids having unnecessarily graphic sex in Episode 3. It was entirely unnecessary to the plot! I’m also interested to know if the LGBT community felt well-served by Episode 6. It’s the only depiction we get of same-sex relationships in the show, and it follows a fairly familar and depressing format with one of the couple being fiery and promiscuous and the other quite traditional, reserved, and even stuffy. Given the directions the plot could have taken, especially considering the good initial setup for that episode, I wonder if we needed to have that particular relationship dynamic portrayed, again. It felt, at best, lazy.


Angus: I would like to say I enjoyed every episode, except the last one — but that’s not true! I enjoyed all of the episodes and I think the last had the greatest effect on me. My irritation with the episode arises from its deviation from the series’ premise that weird technology is behind all the stuff going on, and instead goes for a fantasy/magical approach with the frozen and thawing river. It would have been so easy to show some odd piece of tech lying in the water. That last episode is also the only one to have any kind of violence in it, and was entirely unnecessary.

As much as I liked the slow pace of things and the thoughtful, observational style, there were times when you could see the punchline before it arrived, and I just wanted it to hurry up and get there so that we could move past what was obviously coming.


Louis: I also was quite excited and curious after the first episode. I wish we’d been able to revisit that a little more later on; it felt like it opened up a lot of story loops (no pun intended) that didn’t really resolve later on. The characters in most later episodes seemed to almost entirely ignore the really weird technology that exists in that world.


Angus: Yeah, no one ever poses the question: “Where did this stuff come from?” Is it all discarded experimental garbage from the Loop? Why was it just dumped? I get the impression, and it is just an impression, that the weird tech isn’t there because of the Loop; it’s the Loop that’s there because of the weird tech.


Louis: I love that idea, it actually makes me like the show a bit more!


Yana: Even if I disliked something about Tales from the Loop while watching it, I certainly don’t remember what that was. The one thing that bugged me slightly is probably the sudden fantasy approach in the last episode that Angus mentioned. It just seemed out of place and easily avoidable. 


Louis: I’m extremely happy that Amazon commissioned Tales from the Loop because it’s a great example of how streaming TV can bring a series idea to life that (probably) would never have been made otherwise. They were able to assemble a good cast and decent budget to really allow Nathaniel Halpern (credited as the writer on each episode) to make the most of it. The disappointment, for me, is that I don’t see it making much of a splash in the sci-fantasy world. It didn’t really ring any bells, take us anywhere we haven’t been before, or make me, at least, want any more tales from the Loop.


Angus: I am very glad that Amazon was brave enough to commission this series. Another network would likely not have picked it up, or would cancel it after one season. Of course, we don’t yet know if there will be another season or not — I hope there will be. I happen to know that the RPG upon which this was based does have a successor, called After the Flood. Which takes place a decade later after the Loop has been covered by flood waters. I had half expected that the final episode might end in flood.

I am keen to see where this could go, and Simon Stalenhag has produced many more — and darker — pieces of artwork that hint at greater conflict and dark forces in the future of the Loop. I guess that I’ll just have to wait and see. If Amazon commissions a second season I will definitely be watching it!


Louis: I actually checked out Stalenhag’s art since you mentioned his work was the inspiration for this. I realised that I have collected several of his pieces on various Pinterest boards over the years, I didn’t make the connection before. It’s really engaging artwork, and it makes me even more sad that this series didn’t quite land with me.


Yana: There weren’t any lasers, flashy spectacles in bright neon colours, depressingly fit characters in revealing clothing, or glorification of sex and violence. It all felt very organic, real, and relatable, unlike what we are used to often seeing on the screen, and I am very happy it was created.