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Tales From the Loop review: Amazon Prime Video gets very weird, very slowly

The slow-burning, utterly beguiling sci-fi oddness of a small town feels like Eerie, Indiana meets Chernobyl.

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Technology generally speeds things up, to the point we can feel overwhelmed. But in Tales From the Loop, streaming now on Amazon Prime Video, mysterious and otherworldly technology slows things right down. This slow-burning new series melds enticing oddness with impeccable production -- basically, it's Eerie, Indiana meets Chernobyl.

Last year many were obsessed with HBO's impeccable drama about 1980s nuclear disaster, but while unspeakably compelling, Chernobyl was also utterly emotionally draining. Tales From the Loop gives you the mood of HBO's hit show -- retro anti-fashion, the sense of a community living in the shadow of fearsome technology, quiet dread -- but with a soothingly abstract weirdness that reassures you this is all fantasy.

Tales From the Loop is set in a small town in wintry rural America. Is it the '50s? The '70s? Or the day after tomorrow? Glimpsing an Ingmar Bergman movie at a movie theater in the background gives you half a clue. Soviet-style brutalist edifices loom from the snowy landscape, cold and hard and impassive as concrete. A schoolgirl stares out of a school window at an impassive, faintly buzzing tower. Mute, inquisitive robots lurk among the trees as mysterious trucks zoom past. And the adults of the town cheerfully file into work at the Loop, a mysterious underground research facility.

Each episode tells a standalone story that slowly builds a picture of the town and its inhabitants. They're regular people with regular problems in an irregular world. Much of the show is seen through the eyes of the town's children, and in many ways their parents are as remote, unknowable and half-glimpsed as the technological monoliths jutting silently from the landscape, their purpose unclear. The show's ensemble, including Jonathan Pryce and Rebecca Hall, are as sparse and remote as the landscapes. There's a lot of silence, a lot of thoughtful pauses. It all adds to the sense of uncertainty, unease, a feeling of becoming unmoored. 

The opening episode sets the slow-burning tone, although it feels more like a climactic reckoning than an introduction. We haven't spent enough time with the characters for this opening installment to really land, and it provides answers for questions we didn't yet know to ask. And be wary of a whacking great spoiler inadvertently given away by Amazon. When you pause or hover your mouse over the screen, Amazon Prime Video's X-ray feature tells you the actors in the scene -- handy when you're trying to remember an actor's name, but in this case it reveals the episode's twist.

Tales From the Loop puts a sci-fi twist on timeless Americana.

Amazon

Tales from the Loop doesn't lower itself to Twilight Zone or Black Mirror-style gotcha twist endings. But scratch under the surface of the exquisite production values, ethereal imagery and haunting music, and you'll quickly see the show is built on extremely familiar sci-fi tropes. All over town, misfit kids are finding sinister artifacts that neatly reflect their insecurities. Any show based on this anthology-style format has to present its own version of these hoary old storylines, and Tales From The Loop has a unique technique: it tells these old tropes veeerrrrryyyy slooowwwwlyyyyy...

At times that glacial pace is tantalizing and absorbing. At other times it's frustrating. Don't expect to make connections as plot lines reveal themselves -- this isn't Westworld, packed with twists and reveals and big moments. This is more of a show you could drift in and out of. You could probably watch the episodes in any order. In fact, the dreamlike atmosphere and sometimes obscure storytelling makes it feel a bit like you are zoning in and out, like you can't be sure what was real and what floated up from your subconscious.

Tales From the Loop follows a fine tradition of small-town weirdness, from Twin Peaks to Eureka, from Round the Twist to Stranger Things. It's a thoughtful exploration of our unease about technology encroaching on our homes, shot through with meditative melancholia, utterly beguiling to the eyes and ears. And very slow.