Tales From The Loop


To be fair to Tales From The Loop, an expensive looking eight-part series flopping down in underwhelming style onto amazon’s streaming service this week, it’s probably not the best time to launch a doomy, inconsequential sci-fi drama where nothing makes much sense – not when the entire world outside the window has turned into a doomy sci-fi drama where nothing makes any sense, and it’s all very consequential indeed.

Written by Nathaniel Halpern, the series is notable as an adaptation of an unusual kind. Rather than being based on a book, play, comic strip or video game, Tales From The Loop takes inspiration from the work of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag. Specialising in digital paintings that have a feel of 1980s style airbrushing, Stålenhag is best know for imaginary landscapes with a retro-futurist vibe: straight, almost photo-realist depictions of Swedish fields, mountains, industrial towns and stretching snowy highways, often populated with 1980s-looking figures, but given an odd twist by the incongruous inclusion of fantasy sci-fi elements – abandoned giant robots running free, or airships overhead, or Blade Runner-like megastructures and machinery looming on the horizon.

Fans find a haunting, suggestive quality in Stålenhag’s pictures, and value the images for the way they seem to come clipped from some larger story. (Although, for viewers left unmoved, this is maybe their weakness: more than anything, Stålenhag’s immaculately rendered pictures resemble nothing more than stills from a late-Spielberg or JJ Abrams-style blockbuster, or cut scenes from a video game.)

The artist himself boosted this notion in 2014 by collecting a series of his pictures together as a book, Tales From The Loop, in which he gave the images a backstory: his alternative history takes place around the construction of “The Loop,” a massive, CERN-like particle accelerator, the working of which had a weird impact on the reality around it.

This is where Halpern’s series comes in. Taking Stålenhag’s suggested altered world as its setting, it’s essentially an anthology: faces recur, but each episode foregrounds a different story, as we encounter the people who live in the little town around the mysterious experiment, and through them discover the weird, doomy effects the project is having.

The big problem facing the viewer, though, is how to orient to the landscape. Simply put, if everything is already weird when you arrive – rusting robots wild in the woods, spots in town where gravity doesn’t work, etc – and everybody just takes it for granted, it’s difficult to then know when something newly weird is actually supposed to have happened. And even more difficult when the actors, across the board, all react (or, rather, fail to react) to everything in the same mumbly under-glass daze.

For the audience, it’s like being thrown into Wonderland without a guiding Alice to comment on how curious everything is. Where The Twilight Zone gave us characters whose lives were invaded by the uncanny and were forced to reconsider their lives as a result, the uncanny is already taken for granted here, and goes nowhere.

Directed by filmmaker Mark Romanek, the series catches the look of Stålenhag’s pictures, but that’s about it. Rather than feeling dreamlike, the show is a reminder of how dull other people’s dreams can be. Flatlining as drama (the main mystery of the opening puzzle will be obvious to most sci-fi fans worth their salt after about 15 minutes, leaving the remaining 40 feeling very long indeed), Halpern’s script is most effective in illustrating the difference between reading an implied narrative into a still image, and attempting to impose a narrative onto one. As a consequence, the show points up how shallow the source images are.

“Turns out, not everything in life makes sense,” one character mumbles feebly late in the first story. And that’s true enough. But Tales From The Loop really has nothing to do with life at all, so they could at least have tried to make it fun.



The Nest

9pm, BBC One

Nicole Taylor’s Glasgow-set psychological drama continues with a really strong second episode, pulling tighter on all the strings laid out last week. Three months have passed since Dan and Emily Docherty (Martin Compston and Sophie Rundle), the affluent young couple desperately craving a baby, made their hasty deal with the troubled young tearaway Kaya (Mirren Mack) to become their surrogate. Now, as the three coop up together in their ideal home, a suspicious, cabin fever tension is simmering between them, and Kaya is craving an escape. Meanwhile, she and Dan both have secrets they don’t want revealed. But keeping things hidden grows more complicated yet when a body turns up in the Clyde, and a young journalist begins nosing around. A solid hour, and Mack’s performance gets better and better.


Scandal & Beauty: Mark Gatiss On Aubrey Beardsley 9pm, BBC Four Mark Gatiss seems to have worked himself into the position where the BBC will let him make a documentary on anything he pleases – which is alright by me, as all his subjects so far have been interesting, he’s been interesting and knowledgeable about them, and they wouldn’t have got a primetime Beeb documentary made about them otherwise these days. This is a fine and heartfelt exploration of the work of the great Victorian artist, known for his work illustrating Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and Oscar Wilde’s Salome, and prized as much for the bold, modern minimalism of his line as the scandalously “decadent” nature of some of his drawings. Aided by contributors including illustrator Chris Riddell, Gatiss charts how Beardsley’s style evolved rapidly, and how this brilliant self-promoter crammed so much into such a tragically short life – cut down by TB, he died aged only 25.


Mildred Pearce

9pm, Sky Atlantic

No one gets to Mildred Pierce without going through Joan Crawford. So, given Crawford’s magnificent Mildred, why would we need Kate Winslet’s? This question hangs heavy over director Todd Haynes’s five-part adaptation of James M Cain’s 1941 novel about the abandoned suburban mother who pulls herself up from the gutter by baking pies. But, while by no means “better” than the famous 1945 movie, this series, from 2011, stands on its own for being so different – perversely, by going back to the book. Haynes strips away the film noir, to reinstate the weariness, dirt and everyday eroticism of Cain’s domestic melodrama: the twisted tale of a woman, the social nets around her and inside her, and, above all, her awful love for her children, and her hopeless wish they might have a better life than she. Guy Pearce is great as Mildred’s ratty lover.


George Best: All By Himself

9pm, BBC Four

George Best’s story – staggering talent derailed by the celebrity that came with it and set loose the man’s demons and addictions – is perhaps the most well-worn in British sport. But if director Daniel Gordon’s 2017 documentary doesn’t add much that’s new, it’s a solid portrait, with contributors including sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney. Gordon pinpoints Manchester United manager Matt Busby’s 1969 retirement as the beginning of the end, depriving the mercurial Best of a disciplined father figure. Drifting, with the tabloids at his heels, the nightlife and the booze began to call. It’s a shame there isn’t more footage of Best on the pitch, but what’s here is fantastic. Look out for a clip from 1981, very late in his playing career, during his twilight in America, when he was with The San Jose Earthquakes. Out of shape, he nevertheless rouses one last time.



9.30pm, E4

This highly promising sitcom by O-T Fagbenle – who stars, wrote it, and sometimes directs – focuses on the tragic, tragically deluded figure of Maxxx (Fagbenle), a former pop sensation attempting a comeback. Once a member of Boytown, “the hottest boyband of 2006,” his fame quickly dwindled into tabloid dust-ups and scandals, but he’s determined to rise again, mostly to impress his supermodel ex-girlfriend. But his frequent panic attacks, drug-induced flashbacks, and howling idiocy have other ideas. It’s a post-Atlanta spin on the old Spinal Tap stuff, but Fagbenle gives it a British stamp. Opening with Maxxx preparing for a gig at a dingy Essex throwback night, this excellent first episode makes you cringe in all the right places. The cast includes an unexpected turn from Law & Order’s Christopher Meloni as a horrendous music mogul. The full series is available on All 4 from tonight.



9pm, BBC Four

BBC Four attempts to reintroduce an air of stability and permanence tonight by returning to tradition and rolling out a new subtitled Scandi noir in Saturday night double bills. This eight-part Norwegian thriller is a vehicle for Kristofer Hivju (best known as Game Of Thrones’ flame-haired wildling warrior Tormund), who stars as twin brothers Erik and Adam. While physically identical, the pair have led very different lives: Erik is destitute, an aging surf dude camped out in a clapped out campervan on a desolate beach; Adam a successful businessman living in a big house with his wife, Ingrid (Rebekka Nystabakk), and their kids. In trouble, Erik turns to Adam for help, seeking him out for the first time in 15 years – but the family reunion is not a happy one. In fact, it gets downright violent.