Review: ‘Tales from the Loop’ (2020) is a Quiet Meditation on the Human Condition

Rating: 4.5 out of 4.

An intriguing premise that ends up becoming something more quiet and understated”

Science-fiction has always been a great genre for telling stories that explore the human condition and other existential subjects. The protagonist will confront aliens or the unknown of space to explore their humanity but in Tales from the Loop the drama is a lot closer to home. Adapted from Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag’s series of paintings, the show explores a small town that resides above The Loop: a machine built to explore the mysteries of the universe and make the impossible, possible. Tales from the Loop is pitched as an anthology series that reveals how the townsfolk are connected to The Loop and how the machine connects people together. It is an intriguing premise that ends up becoming something more quiet and understated.

Throughout the eight episodes we get something that is rare when it comes to anthologies: consistency. Most anthology series have glaring differences in quality but Tales from the Loop stands out for having strong episodes throughout. Sure there are episodes that aren’t as engaging but every episode has an interesting story, stunning cinematography and incredible music. Composed by Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan, the score is one of the best in modern television: with violins and pianos alone filling us with wonder, mystery, hope. This consistency might also be because the series isn’t really an anthology as it largely focuses on one family. Each episode gives the spotlight to a particular family member with three of the eight episodes focusing on partners, colleagues and loose connections.

An elderly man looks down onto a young child, from the series Tales From the Loop.
image courtesy of Amazon Video

Each story told has a big emphasis on the characters rather than the The Loop itself. We are teased with the potential that The Loop has but the show is more concerned about how the characters deal with the situations they are thrust into. The science-fiction aspects and the amazing technology produced by The Loop are simply there to push the characters and their arcs. A time-stopping device lets a young woman explore young love, a lonely man is transported to a parallel universe to learn about relationships from his literal self, an elderly man shows his grandson an echo chamber that tells you how long you have left to live to teach him about mortality. The stories explore these human conditions through familiar story beats and plot twists that come into view from a mile away but that doesn’t matter when Tales from the Loop makes it clear that the focus is on the individual scenes. The quietness of each scene is what elevates the show. There is little to no music and usually only two or three characters populate the wide-angle frames. When the camera pushes in for a close-up we notice every twitch and movement on a character’s face. A lot of sequences are dialogue-free and single frames let us know exactly what a character is thinking or feeling. Each scene feels so organic and even in the weaker episodes there are mesmerising, standout moments between the characters. Of course this also works thanks to an incredible cast. Jonathan Pryce and Rebecca Hall have never been better as the grandfather and mother who work at The Loop whilst there are some great showcases for Atto Essandoh as the lonely security guard for The Loop and Duncan Joiner as the younger son of the central family. Even when the stories aren’t exactly groundbreaking or original, the cast helps in keeping things engaging.

It would have worked better if Tales from the Loop was braver in its direction by either focusing purely on the core family or by focusing on completely different characters throughout the town with each episode. The episodes that steer away from the family are great stories in their own right but feel out of place when you look at the series as a whole. An overarching narrative is in play that ties the family member’s stories together and a more focused structure on them would make the themes of Tales from the Loop resonate even more.

Tales from the Loop may be predictable at times but the strength of the craft on display is so strong that the series still manages to become something special.  The characters and stories will resonate with anyone watching and the score alone will move you. Hopefully a second season will allow the creators to become more focused on the series structure to make Tales from the Loop something truly special.

Created by: Nathaniel Halpern

Produced by: Mark Romanek, Matt Reeves, Samantha Taylor Pickett, Mattias Montero, Nathaniel Halpern, Simon Stålenhag, Adam Kansan, Rafi Crohn

Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Rebecca Hall, Duncan Joiner, Daniel Zolghadri, Paul Schneider, Ato Essandoh, Nicole Law, Jane Alexander

Available on: Prime Video