“Nothing really happens!” a critic might declare, frustrated that they have been tricked into watching a piece of media that is more of a meditative and thoughtful experiment than the science-fiction adventure that they thought the marketing had promised them.
And, in a way, it’s true. From Tales from the Loop’s trailer, one might believe that it’s the kind of show where characters seek out answers, and the universe answers in such a way that cleanly explains the phenomena and occurrences that the show centers around. But instead, Tales from the Loop is a show about characters questioning aspects of their life, but soon realizing that concrete answers aren’t what matter.
In fact, the series chooses to address universal, human issues more often than the science fiction concepts the episodes center around. In the first episode, simply titled “Loop,” the main character, Loretta, faces the disappearance of her mother, and by the end of the episode she is no closer to solving the mystery. She instead is told by an older version of herself that there is no answer, that her mother never returned, and the truth never revealed itself. There’s no explanation as to how the intersection of timelines occurred that allowed the younger and older versions of Loretta to appear, nor does there need to be. Instead, the episode relays a harsh truth: Some things are inevitable and cannot be explained. We will lose things in our life that no wishing or pleading with the universe will return. Sometimes breaking away from the path that fate has set us on feels impossible, whether that be repeating the mistakes made by our parents or being doomed to lose yourself and become a person you hate. It almost feels meta: The older Loretta essentially tells her younger self: “I know you have questions, but there are no answers,” and in a way that’s something the show tries desperately to tell its audience.
I am not simply being cheeky with the title of this essay. Tales from the Loop truly does aim to reveal seemingly mundane lives that occur within an extraordinary story. In a way this is very much in line with the source material: Simon Stålenhag’s debut book of the same name reads like an autobiography, a recollection of a childhood told as if it’s just as normal as anyone else’s. Because, yes, there are robots roaming the landscape, their origins not fully known to at least the town’s children, but to the children, these robots are normal (the show addresses this idea in the first episode, in which a kid wonders about the robots’ origins with the same innocence one might ask where babies come from). They serve merely as a backdrop for an otherwise normal life. Now, extraordinary things certainly happen in the book: twins swap bodies, a kid teleports to Los Angeles, dinosaurs reappear in some sort of bizarre glitch in the timeline caused by the experiments done in the Loop. But these stories are all told with a facade of mundanity to them. Many are told as rumors that floated around town from child to child, raising questions about whether these things truly happened in the book’s world or if they were nothing more than tall tales told at the playground. The book strays away from letting adults in on these phenomena, the adults instead seem clueless to the bizarre effects the Loop has had on the town, a feeling magnified by the subsequent role-playing game that Tales from the Loop spawned, in which one of the main rules is that adults are “out of reach and out of touch,” impossible to summon for help.
It was a difficult task for the show to capture a similar tone as the source material that came before it. After all, the book had the advantage of being a written work, which makes it easier for the subjectivity of memory to be conveyed, and for the absurd and abnormal events to seem completely ordinary. And in a way, the show achieved this, just through a very different approach. The series doesn’t focus on the children as dominantly. Instead, it reveals that adults are still seeking the answers to the various questions of life, and are ultimately as clueless as the children. The older version of Loretta couldn’t offer answers to her younger self. She couldn’t reassure the child that everything turns out okay in the end. The tragedy of the episode, as I have mentioned, is that the older Loretta discovers that she has lost her way — that she is repeating the mistakes of her own mother, and that she was always doomed to repeat them.
While the source material offered relatively little explanation as to how the Loop works, the show goes an even more vague and mysterious route. The show’s Loop is powered by an unexplained object called the Eclipse. Where did the Eclipse come from? Nobody knows. All they know of the Eclipse is that it’s the thing that beats within the ground as if a heart. And rather than the Loop being a government project exploring particle acceleration, the show makes it seem more like a man’s passion project. That man is Russ, an elderly man whose family the show primarily focuses on.
“Everyone is connected to the Loop, in one way or another,” Russ says. He claims to his grandson that his job is making the impossible possible, and that he does. Or, the Eclipse does.
This refocusing of the Loop brings forth an achingly human element to the show, an element that breathes through every frame. While the show is an anthology, it has a cohesive story told through the 8 episodes, and many of the episodes focus on one family — that of Russ. The brilliance of the show is evident in this innovative approach to storytelling. Each episode is its own story, but these stories serve to create the patchwork for a broader narrative. An episode that stands more on its own than most of the episodes in the series but still serves as a good example of this narrative form is “Stasis,” the third episode of the series. In this episode, the main character of the previous episode (“Transpose”) becomes a brief side character, almost a cameo. That is the connective tissue between “Transpose” and “Stasis”. The events of the latter vaguely influence the events of the fifth episode, “Control,” but only as a brief reference.
The advantage to this storytelling is the ability for the show to flesh out the people of the town by focusing on each of their individual extraordinary story, and all the while contributing to a greater arc. The second episode focuses on the older brother of the family, who only had a couple minutes of screentime in the pilot. The third episode takes a background character established in the second episode, and tells her story. The fourth episode serves to develop the characters of Russ and Cole. And so on, and so on. This iterative approach to the narrative makes for an incredibly compelling show, an anthology in which no episode seems missable.
With such simple, universal themes, it’s easy to believe that “Tales from the Loop” itself is mundane, or perhaps melodramatic. But its emotions are genuine, its characters compelling, its stories contemplative. It’s science fiction in a raw form — a town that seems normal, or is at least filled with normal people, despite the miracles that occur within it. Our characters live in a world where technology beyond imagination is accessible, yet they still ask questions about life and death, about love and happiness, about family and acceptance. A girl learns that even with a device capable of stopping time completely, it’s impossible to hold onto fleeting moments of love that were never meant to stay. A boy comes to the harrowing realization that not even the mysterious Eclipse can prevent the inevitability of death. A father begins to recognize that a big, threatening robot can’t fend off feelings of insecurity and the ever-growing desire to keep his family safe.
By vowing to tell the stores of these normal people, Tales from the Loop creates compelling evidence to the idea that some feelings, some problems, some truths, some questions, will always exist no matter how advanced technology becomes. And isn’t what science fiction has always been about? Setting aside intergalactic adventures, space fights, and alien invasions, the concept of science fiction has always invited the audience to look past all of the differences of the world created, and realize what remains the same, what is constant, what things are intrinsically a part of human nature and society that even the most imaginative writer can’t shake away. Science fiction isn’t about the aliens, or the robots, or the space travel. It’s about us, and it always has been.