Early in "Loop," the first episode of the new Amazon sci-fi series Tales From the Loop, two children engage in a short but spirited ethical debate. While looking for her missing mother in some snowy woods, May (Abby Ryder Fortson) happens upon Cole (Duncan Joiner) as he pelts a two-legged robot twice his size with snowballs. "Hit it in the eye and it's good luck," Cole tells her, to which May replies, "How'd you like to be picked on?" As they walk away, the robot slowly turns its head to watch them leave. Its looks a little worse-for-wear, but its soulful headlight eyes suggest May knew what she was talking about.
In some ways, however, neither kid knows what they're talking about. "Have you ever wondered where robots come from?" Cole asks May moments later. Neither of them has an answer. They've just always been around, presumably lurking on the edge of human existence like Cole's snowball target. Cole shares a theory put forward by his brother, that robots are "part of what they do underground" but he's unsure if they were made or found. In fact, much of what they can't explain can be traced to what goes on underground.
Cole and May live in Mercer, Ohio, in some hazy, indeterminate version of what appears to be the 1980s. Mercer's home to the Mercer Center for Experimental Physics, colloquially known as The Loop. The Loop has a founder named Russ Willard (Jonathan Pryce), a history, and a center; it's built around a mysterious black orb called The Eclipse, described as "the beating heart of the Loop." But Tales From the Loop leaves the other details fuzzy. Based on the three episodes supplied to critics, what the Loop is and what it does isn't really the point of the series, which takes place in an underpopulated, unsettlingly beautiful alternate universe in which science fiction concepts double as ways to explore emotional truths.
A quick note about those three episodes: Amazon has curiously given reviewers the first, fourth, and sixth installments of the eight-episode series, but these episodes suggest Tales From the Loop might be watched in any order. Russ Willard, Russ's wife Klara (Jane Alexander), his son George (Paul Schneider), George's wife Loretta (a fellow scientist at The Loop played by Rebecca Hall), and George and Loretta's children Cole and Jakob (Daniel Zolghadri) serve as central characters. Yet even though the episodes overlap and reference previous events, each story remains self-contained. It's the striking world that ties everything together.
Created by Nathaniel Halpern, a veteran of Legion and Outcast, Tales from the Loop has its own unusual origin story. It's rooted in the work of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, whose art fills landscapes (many inspired by the Swedish countryside) with retrofuturistic technology (like that soulful robot), discarded machinery, and brutalist architecture — drawing inspiration from conceptual artists like Ralph McQuarrie (one of the original visionaries behind Star Wars) and Syd Mead (who helped shape the looks of Blade Runner, Tron, and Alien). Stålenhag has adapted his art into three books that use text to flesh out the worlds he creates and tell stories within them.
Halpern writes every episode of this first season and has a gift for keying into the eerie beauty of Stålenhag's visuals and finding stories that match their disquieting melancholy. "Loop" sets the tone. It features strange images like floating rocks and snow that "falls" up from the ground and twisty sci-fi concepts best left unspoiled. But it's ultimately about how sometimes our inability to get what we want — in this case, parental approval and affection — shapes our characters in ways we don't always see.
Halpern's joined by collaborators who know how to bring those ideas to life. Hall plays Loretta as a woman who's used scientific ambition and emotional inaccessibility to paper over a deep hurt and her performance is nicely matched by Fortson's. (Joiner, who gets a spotlight in another episode, is a similarly talented young actor.) Music video giant Mark Romanek brings a feeling of hushed wonder to "Loop" (reminiscent of his underrated 2010 film Never Let Me Go), a tone beautifully matched by the score by Paul Leonard-Morgan and Philip Glass.
Both the fourth episode, "Echo Sphere" (directed by Pixar's Andrew Stanton) and the sixth, "Parallel" (directed by The One I Love's Charlie McDowell) sustain that tone via bittersweet tales of yearning and loss. In the former, a mysterious, abandoned metal sphere whose echoes foretell the length of visitors' lives serves as a starting point for reflections on aging, death, and the passing of time that builds to a gutting final scene. The latter brings a supporting character glimpsed in previous episodes — a Loop security guard named Gaddis (Ato Essandoh) — to the fore. A lonely romantic, Gaddis' journey to a parallel world in which his alternate self has seemingly everything he wants sheds new light on the roots of his isolation.
Gaddis arrives at his parallel world by way of a floating tractor and a hole in reality, both strikingly realized. But, as with the science fiction elements throughout the series, they serve as means to dramatic ends. It's unclear from this sampling if the series will spend much time exploring the origins and functions of the Loop, but these episodes suggest there's no real reason to do so. Like Stålenhag's art, they work in part because they keep their mysteries to themselves and suggest more than they reveal. The design occasionally recalls the look of Lost, but the stories work without any obligation to reveal an underlying mythos or the drive to uncover secrets. Tales From the Loop's ultimately less interested in how its strange universe works than what it's like to live within it — and the ways that universe can reflect our own lives back to us.
TV Guide Rating: 4.5/5
Tales From the Loop is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.