Simon Stålenhag isn't a household name. But if you like robots and Scandinavian design, you've probably seen his work on the internet. The Swedish artist, musician and designer is known for producing images that combine rural or suburban life with flashes of science fiction. One picture shows two teenagers in a snowy field, throwing a red pole at some drones that wandered too close. Another depicts a solitary car and, in the distance, a massive bipedal robot with wiry tendrils that connect to hundreds of people on the ground wearing ominous headsets.
Now, these drawings have been turned into a TV show.
Tales from the Loop, which premiered on Amazon Prime Video today, shares the same name as Stålenhag's first artbook and a paper and pen role-playing game Kickstarted in 2016. These publications provide an optional but fascinating explanation for the fantastical elements in the drawings. The RPG also provides a blueprint, through well-written "mysteries'' (the game's version of quests) and stereotypical high school characters, to create some tabletop adventures inspired by The Goonies, E.T., and Netflix's Stranger Things.
Amazon's adaptation isn't set in Sweden, though, or anywhere else in Europe for that matter. It's also not an upbeat adventure about kids defying their parents and saving the world from an overly-ambitious government outfit. Surprisingly, it's a collection of stories that feel like melancholic art films. They have Stålenhag's iconic imagery peppered throughout, but the tone is noticeably slower and more thoughtful than most sci-fi shows. Think Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone, but with a less sinister or terrifying twist. A better point of comparison is Her, a romantic movie directed by Spike Jonze. While technology plays a major role in the film, it's more of a prompt or lens to explore how human relationships can change over time.
The Amazon TV show was conceived by Nathaniel Halpern, a writer and producer who worked on Legion, a mind-bending depiction of Marvel's mutant antihero David Charles Haller. Halpern has never read the crowdfunded RPG book. The show does have a titular loop buried beneath the ground, similar to the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland. But in at least some of the episodes (curiously, Amazon gave critics episode one, four and six to review) there's no mention of the loops that Stålenhag envisioned in the Swedish countryside and Boulder City, Nevada. Other RPG omissions include the magnetrine effect, which allows cargo and military vehicles to float, or Riksenergi, a Swedish government agency that built the world's largest loop.
Instead, Halpern created some new lore.
The show revolves around a secretive loop facility in Ohio run by the Mercer Center for Experimental Physics. Early on, the director of this organization explains that the facility, and the experiments run within, make the seemingly impossible, well, possible. According to Halpern, Stålenhag was "very supportive" of the location shift. “He wanted these stories to be personal for me in the way that the paintings and landscape are personal for him," the writer told Engadget.
Like the RPG book, the loop is a MacGuffin that allows almost anything to happen inside the show. The townsfolk remain the same, but each episode focuses on a different character and their experience with the structure or one of its many fictional effects. Halpern took this approach after carefully examining Stålenhag's original artwork. He loved the emotion in his drawings and how the alternate-reality world felt very "lived in." The far-out technology felt like an accepted and integrated part of everyday life, rather than something alien or surprising.
“He wanted these stories to be personal for me in the way that the paintings and landscape are for him."
“They’re taken for granted more often than not," he explained. "They just exist in the landscape and [have] a mundane, clunky quality. I’m a big fan of science fiction, but so often I find that the science fiction elements are fetishized like shiny toys, and the characters of the world take a bit of a back seat. But here it’s just there and taken for granted. There’s an exciting level of reality that’s created because it’s not being shown off. It’s just there and I think that’s rather unique."