"We trust that time is linear," says the narrator in the early moments of Netflix's new sci-fi series Dark. But what if "yesterday, today and tomorrow are not consecutive"? A few minutes later, a young boy is showing his newest magic trick to his dad, a variant of the venerable street hustle in which a pea moves from under one cup to another, unseen. "How did it do that?" wonders the dad. "The question is not how," replies the magisterial young kid. "It's when."
From these snapshots, you can tell a good deal about Dark: that it's about time travel. That the producers read a screenwriting textbook that contained a chapter or 10 about foreshadowing. And that watching this thing will require a degree of patience that would make Job look like somebody who accidentally took crystal meth in place of his OCD medicine.
Though Dark was commissioned independently by Netflix, it's written, produced and largely acted by veterans of a German television industry that is undistinguished and likely to stay that way. Though the producers of Dark swear their scripts were all completed before the release of Netflix's Stranger Things last year, there are a striking number of coincident plot points between the two, starting with the premise: The disappearance of a kid that's seemingly rooted in a top-secret government facility just outside town.
But it's the differences that are more significant. Where Stranger Things is deft, Dark is heavy-handed; where Stranger Things is well-paced, Dark moves at the speed of a dump truck lost in a bog; where Stranger Things' kids are likeable and funny, Dark's are sullen and sour.
Dark is set in a rural German town on the edge of a gloomy woods, over which ominously towers an aging nuclear power plant that's about to be shut down. Among the characters—among being a key word, to which we'll return—are Jonas Kahnwald, a teenager shattered by his father's suicide; Ulrich Nielsen (Oliver Masucci), a married cop who's having an affair with Jonas' mother; and Ulrich's wife Katharina (Jördis Triebel), an administrator at the local high school, earnest but completely clueless about the murky undercurrents rippling through her student body.
A gothic landscape populated by half-undone families seems promising territory for a spooky melodrama, and indeed, Dark's first episode crackles with sinister foreboding.
But by the second, the show is hopelessly bogged down. Part of the problem is its weirdly schizoid gait; events move quickly, but scenes do not. Even more distracting is the constant parade of new characters with little or no suggestion of who they are or why they're important. Hi, Egon, Torben, and Jurgen! Why don't you go sit over there with Regina, Tronte and Edda, and talk about Bernd, Clara and Udo behind their backs?
None of this is helped by Dark's poorly designed subtitles—the show is entirely in German—which are placed on-screen in such whimsical locations that finding them is a bit like a game of "Where's Waldo?" played at 24 frames per second, but without the intellectual satisfaction.
Ultimately, Dark is underlit and underexplained, with too many characters too inclined to sit around in darkened rooms in wordless contemplation of existential mysteries. Among which are the dead birds who turn up, provenance unknown, every few scenes. Dark seems to want to say something profound on the subject of avicide, but the message doesn't get much beyond "Yuck!" At least I think so; I couldn't find the subtitle.
Photo Credit: 'Dark,' Netflix