Strange things happen in the town of Mercer, Ohio, but the sense of wonder is quite subdued among the residents, many of whom work at the Center for Experimental Physics. The particle accelerator in the underground facility unlocks the secrets of the universe, but it also causes fantastical anomalies in the surface world. However, Tales from the Loop isn’t strictly about the weird happenings themselves; rather, the show explores the emotional impact that results from a slight shift in reality as we know it, and although the slow pace may not be for everyone, the anthology aspect of the series ensures that each episode will have its own dramatic appeal.
Tales from the Loop centers mostly, but not exclusively, around the Willard family headed by the Loop founder Russ (Jonathan Pryce, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote). In the three episodes provided to journalists for review, we see a strained relationship between the patriarch and his son George (Paul Schneider, Parks and Recreation) while the daughter-in-law (Rebecca Hall, Holmes & Watson) and grandson Cole are more in his favor. These family dynamics are played with wonderful subtlety in the series, whether with awkwardness, affection, or mentoring admiration, and all of the actors excel in their roles.
In fact, the whole atmosphere of Tales from the Loop is about subtlety. Long shots of Midwestern landscape are left to play out with all the sounds of summer, producing a comfortable sense of home even when unusual things occur. Because the series takes its inspiration from the paintings of Simon Stålenhag (who also serves as executive producer alongside showrunner and writer of all eight episodes, Nathaniel Halpern), rusty robots and hovering tractors are background elements that suggest a larger story, but they’re also objects taken for granted by the characters that encounter them. Even the time period of the show is vaguely mid-1980s without any specific anchors to nail it down to that era.
As for the sci-fi elements, they do steer the narrative in innovative directions in the style of anthology series like The Twilight Zone but with a common setting and set of characters. There are parallel universes, time travel, and the aforementioned robots to please the geekiest of geeks, and underneath it all is the question of what’s really going on at the Loop. The heart of the facility beats with a mechanical rhythm, and although the physicists respect its power, the Loop is not met with fear or a sense of exploitation. It just is.
Thematically, Tales from the Loop explores love and death and everything in between with varying degrees of success. While a storyline about mortality midway through the season does a great job of showing us a child’s view of what they’re capable of underground when it comes to aging and dying, it definitely has a bleakness and a stark way of presenting the story that might not appeal to all viewers. On the flip side, the premiere episode presents a more wondrous view of the Loop’s history and how it shaped the characters that appear in subsequent installments.
One particularly enjoyable episode doesn’t even focus on the Willard family but rather on the security guard posted outside the Center for Experimental Physics whose life is understandably filled with loneliness and boredom as he sits in a box greeting passersby. What blossoms from his unexpected encounter with the strangeness of the Loop is a love story that could stand alongside the best theatrical romance offerings. Because the story deals with parallel worlds, there are issues of identity, reality, and missed opportunities that pull on the heartstrings and capitalize on the realistic feel of the show underneath the science fiction.
Is Tales of the Loop for everyone? No. Fans of hard science fiction will want to get at the mysteries of the Loop far quicker than the pacing of the series allows. However, Halpern’s writing is filled with literary nuance from the symbolism of a leaky roof to the implications about motherhood that arise from a visit from the past. It’s a quiet and unique exploration of life in a small town affected by singular circumstances in the tradition of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology and a brilliant homage to the Stålenhag paintings.