I watched Tales From The Loop (2020) on Amazon Prime. It is excellent, and all the better for the fact that it ended after 1 season of 8 episodes with absolutely no info-dump exposition of what it was all about. Thus we get the best elements of Twin Peaks and The Dark without the boring bloated mythology and handwavy philosophising.
The opening credits are quite minimal, showing the titles assembling from drifting letters whilst the plinky-plonk Philip Glass music plays.
In the first episode we have an introduction from Jonathan Pryce as the central character Russ Willard.
RUSS: Good evening – or good morning, depending on where you happen to reside. My name is Russ Willard and I’m the founder of the Mercer Center For Experimental Physics, which was constructed here, beneath the town of Mercer, Ohio, and which is referred to locally as “The Loop”. Its purpose: to unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe. As a result of our unique research you will see, hear, sights that you would say were impossible. And yet: there they are. Everyone in town is connected to The Loop in one way or another, and you will come to know many of their tales, in time. So, we’re now to begin.
After finishing the series, this opening segment is rather mysterious, as it implies Willard is releasing an archive to us, whose contents he is aware of. Where is he doing this recording, and when in the chronology did he do it, and how have the episodes become part of an archive? He’s not in all the stories we see and at least one of them appears to occur without him or any more than its 2 characters knowing about it.
Mercer looks like a mid-western US town in a curious state of technological development. All the cars are 70s and 80s models, there are desktop computers that could be as late as the early 90s, but no laptops or smartphones or references to the internet. The Loop itself is represented above ground by strange cooling-tower like structures, but the workforce trudge in every day to a squat brutalist structure.
Presumably all the weird outbuildings with robot arms attached must also be linked in to The Loop. We never get a clear explanation of why it is called “The Loop”, maybe it is due to the layout of the underground corridors, or perhaps it’s just from the logo on its avatars.
Yet there are also oddly advanced devices, such as the robot used in a scrap metal yard, and the autonomous robot out and about by itself in the woods. And also the crop-harvester, whose levitating nature never seems to be remarked upon by anyone.
None of the youngsters make the obvious observation that the robots are similar to the ones in the 2nd and 3rd of the original Star Wars films. Cinema and TV certainly exist here, and we see teenagers watching a horror B-movie in what seems to be the 1950s. In fact there are no references to any contemporary trends or politics from the mid to late 20th century. When the 2 teenage boys are practicing their guitars, the song they are performing is “A Figure Walks” by The Fall, from the 1979 album Dragnet; that was not a hugely successful record at any time and is more likely to be heard by US teenagers from the late 90s onward, when CD reprints and downloads would be available. It is not actually stated that they are performing a cover version, so perhaps we are to take it that in this universe they wrote the song themselves. Later when one of them is in hospital I think the tune playing on the radio is by Television Personalities but I can’t find the exact one I’m thinking of. The only explicit reference to music is when Gaddis travels to a parallel timeline and finds that his doppelganger also has a huge collection of old blues 45s but hasn’t heard of one particular artist, and wonders if that one doesn’t exist in his world.
In the final episode we do get the nearest to a timeline when Loretta sees that Cole is reading a library book that she borrowed when she was younger, and that her name is in the card at the front. So she existed in the mid 50s and we are up to the late 70s at least:
Mercer’s population is mostly white, and at least one white guy is anxious about whether he can fulfil his role as the protector of hearth and home, but it also has minorities. Gaddis is a gay black man, isolated in this world, but when he slips across to a parallel one after seeing a strange sinkhole appear and vanish in a field, he finds an alt-Gaddis living happily in a long-term relationship, although the appearance of a new, fresh version of himself creates a very unusual sexual triangle. A young Chinese-American girl makes a relationship with a boy from a similar background who is also an outsider as he has a deformed foot that causes him to limp. She finds a mysterious device and after restoring its power source with one of the batteries available to the repair crews travelling the fields, it turns out it can freeze time except for anyone wearing special bracelets. So the couple are able to enjoy an entire cycle of love and falling-out whilst the world stands still.
The economics of Mercer are unclear – although we see a family worrying about money, especially once medical bills pile up, they never really seem to be at risk of foreclosure. Nobody seems to leave for work or college elsewhere, or take holidays further away, suggesting of course that maybe its all some sort of enclosure or illusion. There is an island across some body of water, which no one travels to however. We do see Winesburg, Ohio indicated on a road sign at one point.
The Loop itself seems to have started back in the 1940s, as the earliest part of its history is when young Loretta overhears her mum Alma arguing with young Russ about how she’s stolen something from her workplace at the project and she needs to be sensible and bring it back.
But Alma persists in tinkering with the mysterious black rock she has purloined, and everything goes very weird.
A question never raised in the series: what was the relationship between Russ and Alma? If (as their argument might be taken to indicate) he’s the absent dad of Loretta, than that implies a troubling awkward detail about her later marriage and the man she has children with.
Alma’s experiment goes wrong and sets Loretta adrift in time, and so we are quickly taken to see the inner secret of The Loop.
SCIENTIST: The Eclipse… the beating heart of The Loop. Everything above ground – the reason you’re here, now – the Eclipse is responsible.
Where does The Eclipse come from? It is never stated, but I think it was discovered, not created. Dotted around Mercer are the remains of various objects that look like landing craft from space missions, and they have markings on them, but they don’t seem to be oddities that are not fully understood, although some are recognised as having special powers.
I think the back story of Mercer is that it is like the Zone in Roadside Picnic (and its film adaptation Stalker): random detritus of alien civilisation, which human scientists are struggling to reverse-engineer – leading to such novelties as the levitating harvester. Perhaps the serial numbers on the sides of the modules indicate they come from the future – perhaps that’s where at least some of these characters are from? We do learn in the final episode that one regularly occurring figure wasn’t what they seemed to be. It’s a bit vague how exactly Loretta gets back to resume her childhood when Alma is vanished for good.
Every episode picks up a strand or side-effect of another story, with a core cluster of characters tying them all together. I wondered if the very final scenes are pointing at a St.Elsewhere ending, with it all being part of the imagination of young Cole; however we don’t see much evidence of him having a vivid inner life, though there are swirly abstract drawings on his bedroom wall. He is also not indicated as being autistic or having any unusual powers or insights. It’s no more likely that it’s all the dying dream of young Loretta, who had nowhere to go back to after her mum erased their home from existence. There is no answer in this text, and that’s why it’s as near to perfect as it could get. This universe doesn’t need to be “explained”; just like our own.