"Tales from the Loop is maybe best understood as visual art, rather than a conventional narrative," Ed Cumming says of the sci-fi drama inspired by Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag's book of paintings of the same name. He adds: "Unlike The Twilight Zone or Amazing Stories, which have similar premises, Tales from the Loop at least tries to give a context for its strange goings on, although it doesn’t try to explain them....Nobody would accuse Tales from the Loop of being gripping, but it has other qualities, rare in a frenetic era: it is thoughtful, patient, and unafraid to leave its Big Questions open-ended. This is slow television for slow days, and for all the viewers who switch off after 10 minutes worried they are slipping into a coma, there will be others for whom this is a curious joy."
Tales from the Loop has all the elements of a mystery box show, except it’s largely — and wisely — uninterested in its mystery: "If your mind is already racing with possibilities, slow it down," says Ben Travers. "While most writers would treat a statement like that as a starting gun, sending viewers through a maze of puzzles to find out the truth behind The Loop’s exact origins, express purpose, and explicit capabilities, (creator Nathaniel) Halpern isn’t interested in puzzles. He’s interested in people. Each episode of Tales from the Loop focuses on a different citizen of Mersa, Ohio. Each episode sees The Loop create a bizarre, inexplicable event. But each event and episode are designed to bring you closer to the individual, not the machine."
All indications are that viewers looking for concrete answers and sci-fi mythologizing are going to be frustrated by Tales: The series "barely acknowledges the rusted-out futuristic eyesores on the horizon — the best sci-fi imagery in the series is translated directly from Stålenhag's art," says Daniel Fienberg. "Instead, the drama dwells on concerns that are very human in origin, sometimes using sci-fi elements as a catalyst and sometimes barely integrating them at all. On a spectrum of current sci-fi television tackling the nature of existence, the series is almost a polar opposite to the exposition-heavy, laid-bare mechanics of HBO's Westworld, with Devs (FX on Hulu) floating somewhere in the middle, spelled out yet blurry."
It's a calm and quiet anthology series more interested in small moments than bombastic set pieces: "A big part of what makes the show work is its anthology format," says Ali Griffiths. "The series spends each of its eight episodes focused on different members of a small Ohio community who all live in the shadow of (or work for) an ominous experimental facility named The Loop. This anthology setup means the show can jump around and introduce us to a host of characters, many of which recur in minor roles during episodes where they're not centre stage. Switching focus like this, and keeping familiar faces in the audience's peripheral vision, turns Tales from the Loop from a procedural sci-fi show into something even more interesting. It becomes a multi-generational story with a town, and the ever-present Loop, at its core."
How Tales from the Loop brought Simon Stålenhag's paintings to life: "He has this wonderful marriage between the ordinary and the extraordinary and it's very hard and rare to find a unique aesthetic within science fiction these days," creator Nathaniel Halpern says of Stålenhag's work. "Usually it reminds you of something else. Here it really just stands on its own. So I was really taken by the quality of the paintings, but also I felt they were quite emotional. There's a poignancy to the image that I responded to. So then the notion of adapting paintings into a TV series on top of that felt wonderfully unique, and it just felt like a wonderful opportunity."
Tales from the Loop creator calls it the anti-Black Mirror that is best compared to The Twilight Zone: “Tonally, it’s rather unique and I don’t want to give the wrong impression, necessarily," says Halpern. "It’s not a cynical or bleak show, so it’s certainly like the anti-Black Mirror. It’s not Stranger Things, because it’s not trading on any kind of cultural nostalgia. I would think Twilight Zone is an interesting one because I often think about how there was a lot of humanity in Rod Serling’s stories. There were a lot of fantastical elements, but there was a real, humanist quality to The Twilight Zone and a lot of empathy running through those stories. And I think, to a certain extent, you can compare it to that. I love Twin Peaks, but it’s not as odd as Twin Peaks, so I’m worried that might send the wrong signal to some people who are into that. So if we’re just talking the history of television, Twilight Zone would probably be the most appropriate reference."
Why turn paintings into a TV series?: “It’s very hard to have an original aesthetic, especially in the science fiction genre,” says Halpern. “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."