Time travel narratives are hard. When asked to explain plot holes in 2012s Looper, director Rian Johnson argued that plot holes are themselves a trope of the genre. “There’s a slight amount of magic logic that you have to apply in order to make a story like this make sense.” In other words, shut up and enjoy. On the other side of the spectrum, 2004s Primer went the hyper-technical route and, perhaps, as a result, is regarded as something of a cult film – so immersed in hard sci-fi that it becomes niche by default. Netflix’s Dark Season One finds something of the best in both worlds.
The first German-language Netflix series, Dark takes place in the small German town of Winden, whose families become embroiled in a mystery when young children begin disappearing. We quickly learn that Winden and its denizens are not all that they seem.
We follow a few of the more intrepid characters deep into the literal and figurative underbelly of Winden: Ulrich, the police officer whose son has gone missing; Jonas, back in town after an institutional stay following the suicide of his father; and Charlotte, the Winden police chief investigating the recent disappearances. Through them, we delve into the town’s interwoven secrets and mysteries – affairs and clandestine dealings involving generations of Winden families. We travel through the separate but converging timelines of 1953, 1986, and 2019, the nexus of each lying underneath the town’s ominous nuclear power plant.
Dark is refreshing as a concept because it sits somewhere between the aforementioned examples of Looper and Primer. It offers more to the genre than the typical, butterfly-effect cliches that so many time travel narratives rely on, and its twists and turns, although able to be stitched together and diagrammed (avoid looking up these diagrams until watching all episodes, trust me), are entertaining enough to be watched in a more passive way, and unless you plan on bingeing the entire series in a day or two with a pen and paper available (more power to you), you’ll probably at some point find yourself lost and let yourself be taken along for the ride.
Performances are great here, the simmering tension underneath all these character’s motivations make them fascinating to watch. Beautiful shots and deft structural writing make each new scene seem interesting and alive, and the music alternatingly pulses and pummels and propels us deeper into Winden’s secrets (check out composer Ben Frost’s album By the Throat if you enjoy the score).
Dark manages to do something different with the time travel genre: be intelligent without sacrificing entertainment. Regardless of which you prefer, Primer’s obsessive attention to detail or Looper’s mindless popcorn fun, Dark is a singular experience that rewards any and all ways of watching. Dark Season One is streaming on Netflix now.