Franchises and intellectual properties are a fickle thing. As countless videogame movies, book adaptations, game tie-ins and crossovers attest, what works in a medium doesn't necessary work well in a different format.
But every once in a while, an already great idea gets transposed into a different medium, and becomes an absolutely game-changing piece of art. That is the case for Tales from the Loop, the new series from Amazon Studios, which takes Simon Stålenhag's beautiful collection of countryside alternate history paintings and makes an entire new TV series out of it.
Against all expectations, it is an absolute home run, and the best series of 2020 so far - with three episodes in particular that truly stand out for me.
Episode 3: Stasis
The eight episodes of Tales from the Loop focus each on a different character and a different theme. The first episode, Loop, sets the scene and tackles the serie's core theme of abandonment; the second chapter focuses on the main character Jakob and his family's expectations, but it's the third episode - Stasis - that truly starts to deliver the emotional punches Tales from the Loop carries throughout the season.
In Stasis, May - Jakob's girlfriend - starts to lose interest for his summer fling. Why, she wonders, do relationships lose their sheen as time goes by? A chance meeting with Ethan, a limping - if charismatic - guy; and the discovery of a mysterious device that seems to stop time in its tracks except for the two people wearing it, seem to provide answers to her question. But what if the answer is not the one you'd want?
Stasis is the first fully realized episode in the season. It is stunningly beautiful, both beacuse of its photography and for Philip Glass' brilliant soundtrack. Dialogue and delivery are absolutely masterful, and the theme at its core - that of love lost - has rarely been treated with this much grace or understanding. Probably my favourite episode, and the one to watch if you want to see if Tales is something for you.
Episode 4: Echo Sphere
Echo Sphere is the pivotal episode of Tales' first season, as it focuses on Russ, the creator of the Loop, and his impeding demise. The theme of the episode is death, as simple as that; and yet with such a simple premise, Echo Sphere manages to build an incredibly elaborate maze of emotions.
The key scene of this episode sees Russ showing his nephew Cole the Echo Sphere - an artifact which echoes someone's voice once for each decade he or she has left to live. When Russ, on Cole's insistence, shouts into the sphere, not a single sound is heard.
The rest of the episode follows Russ' family as they come to grip with his final diagnosis - delivered not by the Sphere, but by a much more mundane doctor's phone call. Indeed, stripped of its sci-fi items Echo Sphere is probably the most humane episode in the series. And for that exact reason it's also the most powerful.
Echo Sphere's final scene - with Cole finally accepting the cycle of life and death, and shouting into the Sphere with his full lungs as the camera cuts to decades of lives lived at their fullest, is one of the most memorable scenes in recent times. The entire episode, directed by Pixar's Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E), is as beautiful as it's poignant; and is the one that constantly has me thinking back to Tales of the Loop. An absolute masterpiece of a story.
Episode 8: Home
The final and most complicated episode of Tales' first season, Home can be seen as the capstone that brings all the episodes together. Directed by an incredible Jodie Foster (Contact, Inside Man, Silence of the Lambs), Home sees Cole coming to terms with everything that has happened during the rest of the season.
The core theme of Home is, indeed, family. Cole's family is quite complicated - from a brother that accidentally inhabits the body of a robot, to a mother trapped in a time loop; there's a lot to unpack here - and to explain it all would ruin an otherwise great season's finale.
No, I think home is best experienced with wide open eyes, as it carries quite a few surprised along the way. It is a slow episode; but it manages to recap most of Tales from the Loop's mysteries while raising even more questions and ways of reflecting.
The entire season is a slow-motion roller coaster of brilliant character studies, poignant questions and beautiful possibilities. Home - the final episode - is the one that brings them all together.
But in general, this episode is simply the distillation of what's one of the most incredible series I've seen this year. Tales from the Loop, much like Stålenhag's paintings, is not looking for easy answers or fast reads. It requires observation and the slow realization that's there's more in life than what meets the eye at a glance.
For that reason, if you're the kind of person that sees stories - not people - walking down the street; if you've ever stopped and wondered how the world would look like if X had happened instead of Y; or if you're simply fascinated by beauty, complexity, curiosity and, well, good TV; then Tales from the Loop is an absolute recommendation.
The first masterpiece of 2020.