It was during the middle of a mission trip that I saw my first rated R movie in theaters. While everyone else was off seeing Cars, I wandered into Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. A story of drug abuse and desperate people wrapped in shades of not-quite familiar technology, it was a lot to encounter unexpectedly. The story has stayed with me over the years, winding up as a major influence on my MFA thesis. In particular, Dick’s closing dedication keeps coming back to me as something of a rallying cry for human empathy: “These [friends Dick had lost] were comrades whom I had; there are no better. They remain in my mind, and the enemy will never be forgiven. The ‘enemy’ was their mistake in playing. Let them all play again, in some other way, and let them be happy.”
The marriage of human vulnerability and ambiguous sci-fi technology is also at the forefront of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag’s work. Even if you’re not familiar with him, you might have seen his work shared around social media. Moody, often looking as though the scenes are taking place just after the sun has dipped below the horizon, his paintings frequently depict small intimate human moments against the backdrop of retro-futuristic buildings and robots. These too have been significant influences on my writing, the books often laying open next to me as I work. Stålenhag’s first book, Tales from the Loop (2014) was optioned for a series by Amazon and released in April of 2020. Might have just been the global mood at the time, with a certain pandemic just getting underway, but deliberately melancholy science fiction might not have been to everyone’s taste. The show, as expected, was exceedingly on brand for me.
Taking place in a small fictional Ohio town named Mercer, the setting used as almost a shorthand for mundanity, Tales from the Loop’s eight episodes feature an array of sad robots and even sadder people. The weird technology is present from the beginning, most of the town employed by the Mercer Center for Experimental Physics, affectionately known as the Loop. As with any place with such a name, weird things happen daily but this is not a series that is hung up on its own mythology. Instead, it is more interested in the quiet lives of the townspeople, which just so happen to feature time paradoxes and bipedal robots.
This is where the show sets itself apart from other science fiction shows like Black Mirror or Stranger Things. The fates of these characters, while often tragic, feel less like punishment in the style of the former and lack the meta pop culture gloss of the latter. The adults are grounded, all dealing with their own problems, but their issues feel natural with the desperation of trying to protect your loved ones in a world where so much happens due to chance, or the loneliness of failing to find love for so long. Even the kids here are even allowed to be realistically unlikeable in that way when you’re young and think you know how the world should be. You roll your eyes at their choices but still root for them because their mistakes hurt from a place of familiarity. By having the weight of these characters, their backgrounds and emotions, be rooted in the mundane makes the fantastic elements stand out all the more. It’s not all heartbreak though. At its core, this is a show that believes in a quiet sense of hope.
In one of the strongest episodes, “Parallel,” Loop security guard Gaddis (Ato Essandoh) finds himself in an alternate timeline where he meets a version of himself that has achieved the life that he had always dreamed of. This secondary Gaddis is also dating the man of Gaddis Prime’s dreams. It’s a story of queer longing, struggling to find a place in the world, and the complications that come with relationship expectations versus reality all built on top of what could be a cliche trope of parallel universes. A lot of Tales from the Loop threatens to lean into sci-fi cliches, of time paradoxes and abandoned robots, but the storytelling elevates the show above such pitfalls. One of the first things that Gaddis Prime and Secondary do is to have a rational conversation about the situation that has transpired. Gaddis Prime is invited to live in the guest house and from a distance he watches himself live the life that he had always wished for. Things get complicated, which seems fair considering the circumstances, and while it’s messy, it never stops being gentle. Gaddis isn’t being punished for being lonely and his mistakes don’t trap him. He is free to grow from his experience, a measure of empathy that not all shows allow.
Tales from the Loop’s pacing isn’t for everyone, especially for people who prefer complex science fiction or a stronger connective tissue in their story anthologies. Also its refusal to shine a light on the strangeness of the Loop probably will annoy those same folks. But this is the show’s beauty. There’s no showdown between good and evil, no sinister conspiracies or maddening lore. This is a family picture album, not a flipbook. Even as the characters grapple with the unexplainable, the weirdness never outshines the human element. These are only people trying their best after all, who have to pay for new household appliances and learn to deal with hurt feelings even as they have to deal with body swaps and possible black holes in fields. It’s a show that feels like early fall. There’s the underlying sense that reality might stop existing as we know it as Halloween approaches but it also comes with a sense of melancholy being a season centered around things fading. These stories, woven together with a beautiful Philip Glass score, make the same pleading case as Dick’s eulogy: if the world is to be hard and often without sense, at least let us bear with each other all the more kindly.
An MFA graduate from Oklahoma State University, Wyeth Leslie is a poet and author interested in the intersection between technology, the environment, and human relationships. His writings have been featured in publications such as The Vital Sparks, Lost Futures, and Haywire Magazine. He can be found staring into the abyss on Twitter: @Wyeth_was_here