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No matter if you call the genre science fiction or “sci-fi”, there are certain expectations that come from the invocation of that particular flavor of storytelling. Far-flung nebulas, exaggerated futures, and cutting-edge robotics are usually part of the process when the genre is addressed. But the new Amazon Prime Video series Tales From The Loop allows creator Nathaniel Halpern’s retro-futuristic version of the 1980’s suburbs to be an extremely grounded affair when compared to other sci-fi entries.
Tales from the Loop is, oddly enough, based off of artist Simon Stalenhag’s illustrated novel and RPG of the same name. A big component of why the show is show grounded happens to be that Nathanial Halpern, among other things, was moved so much by the artwork Stalenhag created that it made him want to skew towards a more hopeful merger between humanity and technology.
During a conversation I had with Nathanel Halpern, while promoting Tales From The Loop, he laid out those initial storytelling impulses he followed thusly:
From very early on, I was drawn to [that]. I found the imagery so poignant that as a fan of science fiction, and loving all kinds, I find a lot of times these days science fiction is used to make you anxious or angry or paranoid. Here, I wanted to flip that, and just [ask], how can you use the genre to tell very emotional stories that could provide some hard earned comfort or a bit of hope? Which is not all the time something to be afraid of, that it actually can reflect our times. I just don’t see much of that out there, so I was trying to bring that to the table.
Amazon’s new sci-fi series strives to show audiences a world where this often hyperbolic genre is instead used to tell very grounded and humanistic stories. Rather than relying on the potential of the more fantastical elements of Tales From The Loop to inspire a sort of emotional whimsy in its audience, the advancements in technology are portrayed as business-as-usual occurrences, which is rather refreshing.
Despite not having experience with [the RPG based off of the source material](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TalesfromtheLoop(role-playinggame), Halpern actually nails some of the core tenets that are present to guide the players through the world that Simon Stalenhag created. One of the most important examples of those hallmarks is, “Everyday Life is Dull and Unforgiving.” Which is funny enough, considering Halpern, the series’ creator and sole writer, is probably best known for his work on the rather fantastical FX mind-bender _Legion.
When I spoke to Nathaniel Halpern for Tales From The Loop, he confirmed that to a certain point, he was drawn to this particular material because he was looking for a bit of a break from that stereotypical heaviness that science ficiton carries.
Halpern continued to explain his connection to the material, as follows:
That speaks to the aesthetic that Simon [Stalenhag] has. I love that marriage between the ordinary and the extraordinary, and that it’s not like something terribly exciting is happening. It’s a factory town, and the adults work at the factory, and treating it as such. I’m not sure I’d quite seen that, so that was just a wonderful way to build the world. I actually think it lends it a reality that’s unusual, because it does feel so ordinary that it feels like you could get in a car and drive to this town, and that was my hope.
Devoid of paranoia, sarcasm, or irony of any sort, Nathaniel Halpern’s vision for Tales From The Loop isn’t centered around some evil corporation that’s trying to break scientific boundaries in the name of some nefarious purpose. If anyone is looking for the perfect moment that encapsulates how the show approaches its science fiction, it’s when Jonathan Pryce’s Russ tells his grandson that his job is to prove that the impossible can indeed be possible.
Another person who understands this approach exceedingly well is Tales From The Loop star Paul Schneider, who plays the character George, who’s part of the central family unit that recurs through the pseudo-anthological approach the series takes. Schneider is probably best known for his comedy work, such as his character of Mark Brendanawicz. from the first two seasons of NBC's Parks and Recreation. On first blush, it might feel weird that with that sort of comedic notoriety, Paul Schneider would be drawn into a project like Tales From The Loop.
But with a resume that includes such indie hits as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Lars and the Real Girl, the overall picture of why Paul Schneider would sign up for such a thematic journey becomes much clearer. With that in mind, Schneider further clarified the allure of Tales From The Loop in this particular context:
I think that’s why we were all so drawn to it, because. to me, what [Nathanial is] trying is something extremely cutting edge. Which is earnestness and telling stories about human connection and secrets and family, and failure and rebirth.
During our conversation, I compared this approach to the sci-fi genre to another Amazon original, the more bombastic and “ass kicking” series The Expanse. While my initial comparison between both series had me thinking that Tales From The Loop wasn’t exactly what one would call an “ass kicker,” Schneider change my mind pretty quickly with some deep thoughts on the show’s content:
Other series have plenty of explosions and ass-kicking. But if you drive home to your house in suburbia, and you look at your wife and you realized that you’ve been married for 15 years and you really don’t know her at all, that’s a real ass kicking. Nobody that I know or you know is ever going to be spin kicked in the head. But certainly some one that you know or I know, or ourselves, we’ve had someone we love move away. Or we realize that we regret years of our past, and we wonder why we didn’t do the things that we thought we would do when we were younger. But that’s everyone.
So rather than thinking of Tales From The Loop as a show where physical confrontation is where the narrative badassery is on display, Paul Schneider made the point that there’s still some wreckage to be had. It’s just that your feelings and your viewpoint on life are what’s going to be affected by watching this particular series.
Nowhere is that better felt than in one of the three episodes available to critics at the time of these interviews, an entry entitled “Echo Sphere.” SPOILERS here: Throughout the episode, we see Jonathan Pryce’s character Russ in the final phase of his life. After helping create and run the gigantic factory/laboratory Tales From The Loop is based on, his health is declining. But before it’s too late, he shows his grandson the titular location: an old metallic sphere that, once you yell into it, measures how much longer you’ve got to live. It doesn’t give an exact measurement, but it echoes with enough repetitions to signal the visitor’s remaining life span.
Normally, a sci-fi show would use this as either an overly sentimental plot device that showcases a life of regret, or something much more sinister that would see a character trying to fight their fate. But with Tales From The Loop’s handling of the story, we do see a tale of a man who, in a vaguely told story, does experience regret.
Rather than hammering it home by hanging on Russ’ every action, “Echo Sphere” allows the audience to take this experience apart through the family that surrounds him, including Paul Schneider’s character, George. The end result is, so far, the best case for why Nathanial Halpern’s Tales From The Loop is the type of show we need on streaming television right now.
The more grounded approach to Tales From The Loop’s very sci-fi based world help both the emotional and the fantastical pop in a way that any other treatment of the material might have dulled. Allowing the audience to marvel at what’s going both in and around the lives of these characters is the best treatment of the material, and Nathanial Halpern, with the assistance of Paul Schneider and the rest of the cast and crew, really know how to walk that difficult and still-rewarding line.
All eight episodes of Tales From The Loop premiere Friday, April 3rd on Amazon Prime Video.