– By Carly Twehous –
Editor’s Note: S1 E1 spoilers below
Many a review and many a Netflix matching algorithm has said it: If you loved Stranger Things, you will at least moderately enjoy Dark, a German language, Netflix sci-fi/horror original production. Whereas Stranger Things is thrilling in a nostalgic, 80’s-conspiracy-thriller sort of way and sprinkled with a whole bunch of quirky humor, comic book references, and just a smidge of romance, Dark is, well, dark.
Borrowing obvious flavors and inspirations from Stephen King’s It (both the book and the original movie), Dark is set in 2019, in a small, German town adjacent to a nuclear power plant. Naturally, such towns hide secrets and have strict the-locals-definitely-know-something-screwy-is-going-on-but-nobody-dares-talk-about-it policies. Asking questions is dangerous, potentially lethal, and there’s probably something shady going on at the nuclear power plant.
Dark centers on Jonas, at least at first. Jonas has had it rough lately: his father committed suicide and his best friend suddenly vanished off the face of the earth. Then, Mikkel, the 12-year-old son of Ulrich, the chief of police, also happens to vanish. Come to find out, Ulrich’s familiar with this whole vanishing-and-never-seen-or-heard-from-again thing. Thirty-three years ago, his little brother dropped off the map.
Suddenly, in a moment of déjà vu gone terribly wrong, the whole town finds themselves in a twisted web of lies that spans generations. It’s not so much a question of where these people went, but when.
Sounds intriguing, right?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t live up.
Off the top of my head, I can name at least two episodes of the X-files that had pretty much the same plot. Once you’ve seen and read enough of these things, they all start to smell like cheap, German, Stephen King knock-offs. Yes, of course, audiences want to be scared and led into a suspicious town full of creepy, unnatural stuff, but let’s be honest here: the more times you watch the same mysterious and unnatural events unfold, the less you’re actually startled by the jump-scares.
Stranger Things… Perhaps it’s the exception that proved the rule. Of course there are clichés; it’s a satirical rendition of every socio-political fear and conspiracy theory that existed in the 1980’s. Rather than spiraling down the inevitable slide into obscurity, Stranger Things gave us characters we know and love, quirky humor and redemption arcs (I’m looking at you, Steve Harrington) that are worthy of Christological comparison. It gave us a Stand by Me meets the X-Men meets John Hughes smorgasbord of general awesomeness.
With Stranger Things, the audience doesn’t care about the Stephen King formula (although, if you look closely enough, it’s still there). Everyone’s too busy enjoying themselves.
Dark… Well, it’s a great concept, taken from the best of the best, but, bottom line, it’s still a been-there-done-that story, but without all the exciting packaging. It’s the X-Files meets Twin Peaks meets the very best of Stephen King’s imagination. Except instead of nostalgia for the cult-classics and the greats of the genre, you get the same formula regurgitated back, set in a foreign country, with a proverbial note from all your favorite characters that they’re on an extended vacation in Tahiti and are letting the new guys take over.
There are so many mediocre conspiracy-in-a-small-town stories: X-files, Stephen King, the entirety of the Young Adult section of your local library… plus all the personal accounts from yours truly, about a girl growing up in Nebraska. These stories all have common threads: something weird is going on, nobody wants to talk about it, and it’s up to the out-casted and/or ostracized underdog to discover the truth that will inevitably tear the whole place apart.
Dark is not the worst thing out there. Not by a long shot. It poses an interesting, albeit worn-thin concept, and asks all of the necessary philosophical questions standard to the genre: the consequences of scientific progress, fate vs. free will, etc.
If, however, I am to make an honest recommendation, I’m not sure it makes the cut. I’d encourage you to go to the source material, rather than the German carbon copy. There are phenomenal stories out there. Stephen King’s It and Under the Dome come immediately to mind. And there are quite a few episodes of the X-files that did this concept justice.
If you’re going through withdrawals in anticipation of season three, quite honestly, you’ll probably be happier with yourself if you just watch the first two seasons of Stranger Things for the seventeenth time.
Or, pick up a book. I’d be happy to introduce you to my friend, Stephen King.
For more TV reviews by Carly, click here.