D A R K – What Television Has Aspired To

Is there a God? Is he still active? Is there such thing as coincidence? Or, is history perhaps written millennia before our birth, and none of us can escape our fate?

I did not expect to ask myself these questions from a fucking television show, much less from one with a narrative, compelling characters, and a feeling and scope that cleverly balances the intimate with grandiose. But here we are.

Dark has two season available on Netflix, and, as of this writing, in less than a month there will be a third; should it stick the landing properly, it will be cemented in this writer’s opinion as not only the greatest television show ever conceived, but one of the best stories that anyone (writers, filmmakers, poets and playwrights) has ever told me. 

In 2019 (two years after the show’s initial release), in the small fictitious town of Winden, Germany, a man commits suicide. We don’t know his name, or why we should care, nor how he matters to the grand scheme; all we know is that we watched his final hanging moments in great distress, as the camera lingers as he retches and sputters for air. 

Just before this, we see a twisted map of photographs, looking like that of a conspiracy theorist (or simply a madman), which spoils little details that we aren’t even consciously aware of yet. Over this we get a voice-over from a man proclaiming time (and its terminology [past, present, and future]) is simply an illusion, one that is maintained by our own denial and desire to have control over the paths we take.

Then, after the hanging, we see a young man, a teenager, wake up from what we presume to be his dreaming about the man’s suicide. He is doused in cold sweat, obviously distressed, and has to sit at the edge of his bed in order to regain control.

That’s when the first title sequence begins. 

Dark is the culmination of a German couple, a partnership of business and pleasure, consisting of Baran Bo Odar, who directs each episode, and Jantje Friese, who has a writing credit for every installment. It lives up to its title, depicting a consistently rainy and dreary Autumn in its initial season, but also in its characters actions, as well as what appears to be a hand of an indifferent or even cruel God reigning over all.

Should one strip away the sci-fi elements of Dark, one would still have a solid small-town melodrama. It depicts characters of all ages, and all the ingredients are present—sex, envy, cheating, lying, angst, the works. In these qualities, paired with its intimate closed-in setting and even in the pretense description of children going missing (and turning up dead), one could easily compare this show to the legendary Twin Peaks or the recent (and trending) Stranger Things. But (like I said, should Odar and Friese stick the landing) such comparisons will be immediately be shrugged off by the patient and observant viewer by time they conclude so much as the second episode. This show, albeit dreary, is not a horror show, and although it might raise (at times) similar questions of the conscious as Twin Peaks, I’d say the similarities end there. As for a comparison to Stranger Things, what Dark lacks in a color palette, it makes up for in better pacing, more genuine characters, and a lack of catering to your nostalgia. 

No, this one stands on its own. This could be considered a spoiler, but its very minor: Dark is about time travel. But its hardly the new Endgame action film or the goofy Back to the Future films. This show’s approach to the notion of time travel is grounded and realistic, many characters scoffing at other characters’ ability to accept it as a possibility. 

But its not even this grounded nature that makes this one-of-a-kind. The show boasts a large cast of characters, primarily four families who, secretly or not, have gripes both inside and outside their households, whose lives are changed forever when the strange nuclear-charged void in the woods is not only causing people to vanish, but for their secrets to come out. Very few of them are genuinely bad people, but that void in the woods has been controlling their lives for longer than they think.

Strangely enough, no one in this backwoods world of Winden ever seems to actually leave, despite their own personal miseries. Such family history is shown in what has, at the time of this writing, spanned into five separate time periods, both in this century and the one preceding it, where we see ancestors and descendants still locked into similar roles, all making the same claim: that they’re going to get out of this town one day.

This being a show about literal journeys through time, it is indeed possible for one to literally see themselves in other times. Absurd as such an idea is, it actually depicts with very literal demonstrations how people always change either for the better or worse, become more or less moral, smarter or more ignorant, or simply more tired and jaded.

It may sound ridiculous, and frankly, if I were told two years ago that what appears to be a brooding small-town show about perhaps a serial killer or even an alternate dimension was about fucking time travel, I would have merely scoffed and presumed its plot to be full of holes and liable to be quite boring. But when I warmed up to the idea and pursued Dark, I was pleasantly surprised, albeit, at the end of the initial season, extremely confused.

No other show that I’ve seen has warranted (or simply demanded) a second viewing (at least). In its intricate timelines (most prominently the ‘50s, the ‘80s, and the ‘10s), it depicts sprawling amounts of characters (with Game of Thrones levels of confusing family trees [and incest]) and circumstances that give way to an unfathomable amount of mind-numbing paradoxes. It requires the full span and width of one’s attention span, for, while many thematic questions are read out loud, its basic plotting does not by any means downplay the audience’s intelligence. If Christopher Nolan made a television show, I’m convinced it’d look something like this.

All this eventually factors into the occult, the Bible, and the apocalypse. But none of these inclusions feel unearned; like a well-nursed planted tree it grows on both ends, in stem and roots, gradually and gracefully, until those around it are in awe. I’m genuinely convinced that its lack of American status are what most heavily affects its viewership; that said I wouldn’t be surprised if it gained more traction over the years, ascending from cult status to that of something that can change the storytelling structure as we know it across all mediums. Should I be correct about its upcoming finale, I can only assume that Odar and Friese have always had its ending in mind, a grand scheme of their own and a near-singular vision coming to a beautiful fruition. Quite literally, one could call Dark, and the resources surrounding it, ahead of its time. 

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