Strange goings-on around a small town deep in the woods. Missing children. A harassed police chief. An out-of-town plant with sinister, secretive staff. Flickering lights. Other dimensions. Yes, I’m sure you’ve been watching “Stranger Things” too – but these are in fact the plot points in another Netflix show airing this month, the fabulously intricate and confusing German-language “Dark”. Five episodes in, and having recently caught up with the disappointingly flat second series of “Stranger Things”, I’m inclined to say that this one – chillier and more mind-bending than its famous American counterpart – may end up being even better.
The creators of “Dark”, a husband-and-wife team of Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar, the writer and director respectively, are at pains to emphasise that their show was in development well before the Duffer brothers introduced the world to the knowing schlock, retro-pulp influences and “Dungeons & Dragons” obsession of “Stranger Things”. And in fairness, the differences don’t take long to make themselves felt. Both shows borrow liberally from the same cultural antecedents – Eighties cinema, “Twin Peaks”, the work of Stephen King – but what they do with their material soon propels them along wildly different paths. Where “Stranger Things” calls gleefully out to “ET”, “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies”, “Dark” (an appropriately named show if ever there was one) opens with a horrible scene of a man hanging himself and moves on swiftly to depict abduction, infidelity, drug-dealing, conspiracy and the wreckage of various family lives. And where “Stranger Things” soon settles into a binge-worthy battle between its group of goofy kids and a creeping supernatural evil – the TV equivalent of comfort food — “Dark” proves to be a restlessly peculiar affair, still pulling out plotlines, characters and new concepts many episodes into its first season.
“Dark” revolves around time travel, although you’d be hard pressed to guess it from the opening hours. As with a growing number of Netflix shows, it proceeds at a measured, novelistic pace, tipping the viewer deeper into mystery and confusion. In the small town of Winden, a woodland settlement bordered by a huge nuclear power plant, children are beginning to go missing. A bizarre hooded figure stalks the woods, strange mysteries are afoot in the system of caves beneath, dead birds and animals are piling up, and the adults who grew up in Winden – a police detective and his boss, a doctor, a school principal, the supervisor of the power plant – are beginning to notice chilling similarities with events that took place in the town 33 years ago. Just as you’re getting to grips with all this, and with the cast of surly teens and damaged adults which the show follows in the present day, everything goes all “Back to the Future”. Someone is toting a steampunk time machine around in a briefcase. Someone else appears to have stepped through a gap in time. Jonas (pictured top), a troubled teen who returns from a psychiatric hospital after his father’s suicide, discovers a map that hints at Winden’s arcane secrets. A few episodes in, the entire show splits down the middle, and the audience is introduced to a new cast playing the same characters three decades before. But this, it turns out, is only a minor spoiler. More enigmas lurk down the road.
This is challenging stuff. “Dark” is part of an increasingly common school of what-the-hell TV, which also includes series like “Lost” and “Westworld”. In this genre much of the fun, as the plot dumps you down trapdoor after trapdoor, comes from working out what on earth could possibly be going on. But “Dark” is also saturated with loss and grief, its withdrawn sensibility reminiscent of the iciest Scandinavian noir. Long stretches go by in silence, as characters stare reproachfully at each other in scenes throbbing with subtext and, outside, glassy Steadicam shots move through miles of empty woodland. Moment to moment, this emotional temperature feels so gloomily sub-zero that it’s easy to lose sight of how much is going on, as what feels like zilllions of plotlines and personal entanglements intersect and diverge.
I’m still a long way from figuring it all out, and, who knows, I may end up needing a pen and paper to keep track of it. For the moment, however, this kind of ambition is completely irresistible. Netflix may soon have another supernatural hit on its hands.