SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Tales from the Loop,” streaming now on Amazon.
From the moment it was conceived, “Tales From the Loop” — which debuted Thursday night on Amazon Prime Video — was unlike any science fiction TV series ever conceived, for the simple reason that it’s based on a series of paintings by Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag.
Stålenhag’s artwork is at once everyday and fantastical — like a modest rural home sitting quietly in a winter landscape, while a robot stares almost plaintively at it from outside. When Nathaniel Halpern (“Legion”) first saw them while meeting with filmmaker Matt Reeves (“War for the Planet of the Apes”) at Reeves’ production company 6th & Idaho nearly five years ago, he was immediately captivated.
“It’s very hard to have an original aesthetic, especially in the science fiction genre,” Halpern tells Variety. “There’s something about the marriage between the ordinary and the extraordinary, and also how poignant his images are, that I really responded to. And then the idea of adapting paintings into a TV series seemed so wonderfully unique I just leapt at the opportunity.”
The series takes its title from a book of Stålenhag’s paintings published in 2014, which has a sparse quasi-narrative. But although Stålenhag consulted on the show, Halpern conceived the story almost from whole cloth, save for a few key elements: the concept of “the Loop,” an underground facility somehow responsible for the strange events in the surrounding town; the setting in the early 1980s; and, of course, those striking visual tableaus. Halpern used those components to write a series of eight loosely connected episodes set in the fictitious small town of Mercer, Ohio, using the Loop — a.k.a. the Mercer Center for Experimental Physics — as the sci-fi spark for his stories.
Each episode is directed by a different filmmaker, including Mark Romanek (who helmed the first episode and also serves as an executive producer on the show), Andrew Stanton, Ti West and Jodie Foster. (Reeves executive produced, but didn’t direct any episodes.)
But after watching just one episode, it’s plain that Halpern’s voice leads the show, with no less an ambition than to have “Tales From the Loop” stand apart from the vast majority of sci-fi storytelling over the last 25 years. Here’s how he pulled it off.
It isn’t quite a serialized show, and not quite an anthology show, either.
The center of “Tales From the Loop” is a classic nuclear family: Loretta (Rebecca Hall), who works at the Loop; her husband, George (Paul Schneider), whose father Russ (Jonathan Pryce) founded and administers the Loop; and Loretta and George’s two sons, Cole (Duncan Joiner) and Jakob (Daniel Zolghadri).
Many episodes focus on just one or two members of the family “so I didn’t have to tie myself in knots to see how they would intersect,” Halpern says. “The fact that they all live in the same house was an elegant way to have characters weave in and out of each other’s story.”
But several episodes barely involve the family at all, choosing instead to focus in a peripheral character for the full hour — like Gaddis (Ato Essandoh), the clerk who sits at the entrance to the Loop.
“I wanted to capture Simon’s sense of wonder — keep that alive episode to episode, and not have the audience get too accustomed to the world,” says Halpern. “I find what’s tricky in TV series is that there’s that wonderful alchemy of an ordinary person who encounters something extraordinary, but when too many extraordinary things happen to an ordinary person, they’re no longer ordinary, and it’s very hard to relate to them. So that’s dictated within this show having different characters take center stage, so we always have that balance of wonder and having someone we can relate to going on an extraordinary journey.”
It isn’t interested in explaining how things happen.
Those extraordinary journeys are always catalyzed by a sci-fi conceit inspired by one of Stålenhag’s paintings — like the hover-tractor sitting dormant in a field of wheat that winds up transporting Gaddis into a parallel dimension.
How that transpires, however, is never explored. The show is almost studiously uninterested in examining whatever exotic scientific theory might explain what’s causing these events to occur.
“When you hinge on a question or a mystery or a puzzle, it’s a mental exercise that has its own rewards, but it doesn’t move me in an emotional way,” Halpern says. “I think an under-serviced aspect of the genre [is] the idea of using the science fiction to amplify what the character is feeling versus the other way around. A lot of times in science fiction, a character purely exists to serve as a science fiction idea.”
Instead, Halpern wanted to use the Loop as a way to explore more universal truths that would be impossible in a straight drama series. In Gaddis’ case: What would happen if after yearning for a life you didn’t think you could ever have, you got to see yourself living it, up close and personal? The result is a kind of human-scaled storytelling almost entirely missing from the current sci-fi canon.
“There’s so much out there that mines our anxiety and fear and anger, to the point where, if you just watch TV or film you might think that’s the only emotions we had,” Halpern says. “But there’s a whole spectrum of other feelings that I think go underserviced, and I think that’s the discovery in the show, of being moved by these various stories that are exploring different aspects of the human condition.”
So don’t expect the “mysteries” to be resolved.
Stålenhag never painted the Loop itself in his work, choosing to allow the viewer to imply what it might be. But Halpern chose to take the audience inside the Loop facility in the very first episode.
“I didn’t want to do a puzzle box where it was all about, ‘Oh, I wonder what’s going on underground?'” he says. “I thought that would come at a disservice to the emotion and the characters where I wanted everyone’s focus to be. So it’s important for me to go underground in that first episode and say, ‘Here it is.'”
In that first episode, Halpern also reveals the object that drives all the research at the Loop, and the unexplainable events that fuel the show: A massive, floating, geodesic sphere referred to as “the Eclipse.” Just don’t ever expect the show to tell you where the Eclipse came from, or what it’s made of, or what it does.
“In my mind, it’s beside the point,” Halpern says. “If there was an investigator at the center of the show, there sure would be questions that would be front and center. But none of the characters are asking these questions. And so I hope we take our cues from them and just go on their emotional journeys with their individual stories.”
It’s an approach that flies in the face of decades of mainstream sci-fi storytelling that demands that every possible question raised over the course of a show — what is that giant black thing? — gets an answer.
“I think we’ve been trained to think there’s greater mythology, and more to uncover,” Halpern says. “We’ve been given so much of that I think we’re on some level wired to expect it. I do understand some people take comfort in trying to nail down specific answers. It’s just not what I was pursuing with this.”
The 1980s setting doesn’t really matter.
Halpern chose to keep to the early-1980s time period of Stålenhag’s paintings, as evidenced by the squared-off cars, beige-y costumes and giant, boxy computer monitors.
But in contrast to other period sci-fi TV series of late, he would just as soon you forget when the show is specifically taking place.
“I didn’t want to fetishize the time period and make pop culture references,” he says. “I don’t want to be nostalgic for media; I want to be nostalgic for events in my own life. So I tried to take the timestamp out of the show, and hopefully there are these intimate moments that people can recognize themselves in and [think], ‘Oh I remember that as a kid.’ And it doesn’t have anything to do with what year it is.”
Hopefully, this isn’t the end.
While Halpern says there hasn’t been a formal conversation about a second season of “Tales From the Loop,” he is keen to make one.
“The Loop itself is this great storytelling generating device,” he says. “So the possibilities are pretty endless to what you can do. I certainly have more stories to tell about this town and the people who live there.”
Halpern is especially eager to revisit the (relatively) idyllic nature of “Tales From the Loop.” Although some of Stålenhag’s paintings are quite grim — and very much in line with the robustly dystopian streak in sci-fi storytelling over the last 40 years — Halpern steered his show in the complete opposite direction.
“I knew this was not going to be a show that was doom and gloom about how awful technology is,” he says. “That’s all well-covered.”
He had no way of knowing, of course, that “Tales From the Loop” would debut when the real world has itself tipped precariously into the apocalyptic. But the show’s gentle, humanistic approach could be exactly the balm audiences need right now.
“It’s both fortunate and very unfortunate timing,” Halpern says. “But it was always designed to hopefully provide a little bit of hope and comfort. It’s not sentimental by any stretch of the imagination. But my hope is people can recognize themselves in it, and take comfort that they’re not the only ones that feel that way.”