Residents of a rural town find themselves grappling with strange occurrences thanks to the presence of an underground particle accelerator in the new series Tales from the Loop, inspired by the stunningly surreal neofuturistic art of Swedish artist/designer Simon Stålenhag. The eight-episode series was originally slated for a limited premiere at SXSW last month; the coronavirus pandemic scuttled those plans, along with our collective social lives. But now everyone can watch the series on Amazon Prime, and I highly recommend that you do so. It’s visually arresting, with powerful performances from a very talented cast, and brings out the underlying humanity and hope of all great science fiction.
(Mild spoilers below.)
Tales from the Loop has its roots in Stålenhag’s 2014 narrative art book of the same name. That book, and 2016’s Things from the Flood, centered on the construction of a fictional particle accelerator dubbed “the Loop” and its impact on the surrounding people and environment. (A third book, The Electric State, focused on a young girl and her robot companion traveling across the western US, which in that reality is known as Pacifica.) A child of the 1980s, Stålenhag grew up on the rural outskirts of Stockholm, a witness to the decline of the Swedish welfare state. That sense of decline infuses his Loop-based work, which sets rural settings and easily recognizable common objects like Volvo cars alongside mysterious structures and mechanical robots.
In 2017, Stålenhag collaborated with Nils Hintze and game writer and author Matt Forbeck to produce a Kickstarter-funded science fiction tabletop role-playing game, also called Tales from the Loop. The hit Netflix series Stranger Things had debuted the year before, whetting people’s appetite for ’80s nostalgia, and the RPG reflected that sensibility. The game’s alternate reality was set in the 1980s, just west of Stockholm. (A second setting, in a city based on Boulder City, Nevada, was added once stretch goals had been reached.) The story focuses on a group of kids between the ages of 10 and 15 tasked with solving Loop-connected mysteries, and players choose to play as Types: Bookworm, Computer Geek, Weirdo, Jock, or Hick, for example.
“I saw a chance to tell poignant human stories with a bit of hope in them.”
In other words, the RPG leaned heavily into the Stranger Things ethos. So it was both surprising and gratifying to discover that the TV adaptation hews more closely to the mood and tone of Stålenhag’s original work. It’s more reflective, occasionally somber—thanks in part to a recurring understated piano theme by composer Philip Glass—focusing more on quiet emotional moments than technological wizardry or intense action.
That’s probably because Executive Producer Nathaniel Halpern was never exposed to the RPG, only Stålenhag’s art, although he was aware that the game existed. “This was a direct line to the paintings,” Halpern told Ars. “There was a tone and an emotion that I was really drawn to in the work. So often science fiction can be somewhat cynical or serve to induce anxiety or fear or anger. With Simon’s work, I saw a chance to tell poignant human stories with a bit of hope in them, and maybe provide a bit of comfort, which I think we could use a little bit of right now.”
Per the official premise, “Tales from the Loop explores the mind-bending adventures of the people who live above the Loop, a machine built to unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe—making things previously relegated to science fiction possible.” The stories stand alone, but they are all interconnected, with each episode taking the viewpoint of one of the town’s primary residents—many of whom work at the Loop—and focusing on a specific science fiction conceit: time travel, parallel worlds, or a strange kind of anti-gravity, to name a few.
Unlike in most TV adaptations, Halpern and his team were faced with the challenge of creating a series out of visual art. “There’s this wonderful marriage in Simon’s work of the ordinary and the extraordinary,” said Halpern of the experience. “Essentially it boiled down to looking at a painting and thinking, what is the story that leaps out at me? Each episode can be tied to a painting, or two paintings, that were a direct inspiration for the story that came to me. So often the hard part is the tone and mood and look of a world, and Simon had already done so much of the legwork on that. It was a gift to have that and to fill it in with stories.”
Tales from the Loop is the antithesis of shows like Black Mirror (which deals explicitly with the unintended negative consequences of digital technology) in its focus on period-appropriate analog technology. There are no cell phones, no laptops—just ’80s-era desktops with bulky CRTs—and definitely no home Internet. And any technology remains largely in the background, never interfering with the human narratives.
“I think there’s something emotional about the human endeavor of that analog technology, where you can really see all the effort that went into making it,” said Halpern. “The tactile nature of it was crucial in terms of being able to tell those emotional stories. My intention was not to fetishize the science fiction. It’s there to amplify the characters’ stories, not the other way around.”
“We’ll never run out of stories or corners of the town that we can explore.”
One episode in particular deals explicitly with a recurring character’s impending death, and how others, especially family members, react to the inevitability of mortality–even in a world where so many people work in a place that makes the impossible possible. “Somehow the genre makes the audience feel safe enough to entertain it and explore those emotions, whereas they might a little gun-shy if it was presented as a straightforward drama,” said Halpern. “Here, it kind of takes them by the hand, [adding] that bit of wonder, which allows them to contemplate mortality in a way they might not otherwise.”
So will there be more seasons to come, and even more interrelated stories of the people who live around the Loop? Halpern certainly hopes so. “It’s designed to be an ongoing series, because the structure is a storytelling-generating device,” he said. “This is not a mystery show. It’s not hinging on an answer to a question. We’ll never run out of stories or corners of the town that we can explore.”
There is one central mystery, however: a mysterious artifact known as “the Eclipse” that serves as the heart of the Loop and is responsible for many of the surreal happenings about town. But it’s there primarily to shore up the fictional world’s premise. We see it in the very first episode, which Halpern said was a deliberate choice. “This is what justifies everything you’ll see above ground, and let’s take that question off the table,” he said. “On-screen, I was trying to signal to the viewers, this is not what this show is about. Look at the people.”
Tales from the Loop is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Listing image by Amazon Prime