Over the summer, it felt like every new Netflix project came attached with the question “Is This The New Enter Universally Beloved Cultural Touchstone Here.” Was Ozark the new Breaking Bad? Was Shimmer Lake the new Memento? That trend lulled when we entered fall, as the streaming service debuted decidedly distinctive series like psychological thriller Mindhunter and sleeper critical favourite American Vandal. But it’s back now that Netflix has given international viewers Dark, a German-language sci-fi thriller involving curious young people, a supposedly sleepy town, and forests hiding mysteries that dedicated viewers will be obsessed with. Are you also having serious flashbacks to Hawkins, Indiana? While Dark unquestionably has Stranger Things vibes, the subtitled European series’ sci-fi elements lead it down a completely different path than that of Eleven (Milly Bobby Brown) and her friends.
The Dark premiere, “Secrets,” sounds a lot like the opener of Stranger Things, “The Vanishing of Will Byers.” In the inaugural German episode, a young boy has disappeared, and his family is desperate to find him. This time, though, as opposed to a middle schooler of wide-eyed, nerdy innocence, in Dark’s Winden, Germany, we’re dealing with a teenager who’s at an age where the police aren’t so sure he’s missing. What if high schooler Erik Obendorf (Paul Radom) simply ran away? After all, as detective Ulrich Nielsen (Oliver Masucci) keeps saying, “Nothing ever happens here.” As ardent Stranger Things fans recall, that’s exactly what Hawkins police concluded about the disappearance of Barb Holland (Shannon Purser).
And, like Barb Holland, Erik didn’t run away — he was a victim of the bizarre supernatural happenings in his “Nothing happens here” town. The only difference is, instead of an interdimensional monster with a flower face of sharp teeth, the people of Winden are dealing with a time travel-inducing cave. That cave’s second Dark victim is our inadvertent Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) stand-in, Mikkel Nielsen (Daan Lennard Liebrenz), Ulrich’s youngest child. By the end of “Secrets,” a young boy’s body is even found, and it’s not the missing Mikkel’s. Remember the weird, stuffing-filled fake Will Byers Hawkins law enforcement eventually found?
Looming over all of this sci-fi intrigue is a local problem-causing power plant, which is scheduled to close soon. The Hawkins Lab would be happy to know they’re not the only science building in the television landscape ruining the quiet lives of the townspeople around it. As usual, there are experiments afoot, and those experiments are bad.
While all of this sounds very Stranger Things, and technically is very Stranger Things, Dark doesn’t have the same lovable gee-whiz sensibility of Netflix’s Duffer Brothers hit. Nearly every detail of Stranger seems like a reference to some revered piece of pop culture rolling around in Matt and Ross Duffer’s heads. That’s why Eleven feels like a combination of E.T. and Firestarter’s Charlie McGee (young Drew Barrymore), complete with a bitchin’ makeover by the end of season 2. That’s why Lord Of the Rings-by-way-of-Goonies star Sean Astin and Aliens’ Paul Reiser joined Stranger 2, and fellow newbie Dacre Montgomery looked like a sandy-haired clone of Rob Lowe in St. Elmo’s Fire as unhinged bad boy Billy Hargrove. Stranger Things loves the '80s with all its heart.
Dark doesn’t have the same fanboyish appreciation for, really, anything. Rather, this is a Serious Drama and philosophical crime thriller in the same vein as many European shows that make it to America. While the sci-fi details of Stranger Things ramp up the entertainment value of the series — “Wow, that tween just threw a whole van into the air with her mind!” — Dark uses time travel to help it interrogate the big questions of the world.
During a binge of the yellow-toned series, you’re more likely to ask whether time travel could ever truly fix the past, present, and future, and whether the resulting answer is a good thing. It’s all very True Detective “time is a flat circle” meditating. When you check in on Hawkins, on the other hand, the burning questions are much closer to “Seriously, what hairspray does Steve use?” or “When will Eleven and Mike ever get to kiss?” That’s why Dark is much more original The Killing and Girl With The Dragon Tattoo trilogy than Stand By Me and Star Wars. Even when Dark does traffic in the ‘80s, it’s through music videos like Dead Or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” that no one actually even reacts to.
Dark’s austere atmosphere makes sense, since the drama's creators were never interested in making Germanic Stranger Things in the first place. “We’re raising the questions of what’s there first: the chicken or the egg? And the only answer we as human beings can give is that they have to be there at the same time because there is no real answer to it,” creator Baran bo Odar told The Independent. “If you do have an answer, you’d know if God exists or not.” Tellingly, Odar and cocreator Jantje Friese, amid their conversations about theology, the philosophical underpinnings of time travel, and the scientific writings of Albert Einstein, cited more stern crime shows like Mindhunter and Making A Murderer as personal favourites.
So, if you tune into Dark, you’ll coincidentally see many of the plot points of Stranger Things, but through the Upside Down lens of stark European crime drama.