Alright, strap in. I'm about to say something a little controversial. And finding controversial things left to say in 2017 is a tough ask.
I think, though – I think – I've found a show that's better than Stranger Things.
In fact, some people like it so much that...
There are many very good reasons why people are comparing Dark to Stranger Things. For starters, Dark is set in Winden, a small, remote town where something weird is going on. Just like Hawkins in Stranger Things, said weirdness appears to be emanating from a shady local enterprise; in this case it's a nuclear power plant.
Furthermore, the main characters in Dark are a group of teenagers and the show features strong ties with the 1980s, through costume, music and historical references.
No doubt more similarities will present themselves throughout the season but, really, Dark has more than enough imagination to stand on its own two separate and accomplished feet.
Winden is a fictional Bavarian, heavily forested town. It's the sort of small town that people grow up wanting to leave and then don't. The sort of town where everyone knows each other and rumours spread quickly. The sort of town where everyone is hiding something. It is 2019, the final year of the nuclear power plant's existence before it is decommissioned. A man kills himself. A local boy goes missing. Then another one. Birds begin to drop out of the sky. The electricity fails. For the main group of teenagers, the events are scary and confusing. For the adults of the town, though, most of whom have spent their whole life there, things seem eerily reminiscent of 33 years ago, a big year in the nuclear power plant's history, when another boy vanished from the woods.
A mysterious shadowy figure seems to hold the key to what is going on. His question, as he keeps asking, is not where the missing boys are, but when. Time travel, as you've probably guessed, becomes involved, as do multiple storylines stretching across a 66-year arc. The town of Winden exists beneath an air of unease, a tenseness that's exacerbated by the heavy rain and low clouds, the dark lighting and the synth-heavy music (think Tears For Fears' "Shout"). Every so often, the cloying use of strings interrupts the dank air to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
The female characters are well thought-out, intelligent and no-nonsense. Much is made of the fact that a woman was put in charge of Winden's nuclear power plant all the way back in 1986. Providing for the family, organising the townspeople, influencing and carrying storylines seem to be responsibilities weighted equally between the male and female characters in 2019. Of course, this isn't a surprise when it comes to Netflix. After all, this is the streaming platform that gave us Orange is the New Black back in 2013, when just 27% of women working behind the scenes in TV were female, just 42% of women had speaking roles and of those women, 74% were white. Actually, the one place that Dark does come into question is that so far, in the episodes I've watched at least, the cast is startlingly non-diverse; perhaps forgivable in West Germany in 1986 or 1953, but for a 2019 setting? Things could surely be different.
When it comes to actually sitting down to watch Dark, it's important to note that the default setting on UK Netflix is the badly dubbed English version. Don't accept this. The out-of-sync lips clash with the American accents, which sound oddly placed in such an obviously European setting. Instead, head to your subtitle settings and turn the language to German and put the English subtitles on. Subtitles make you concentrate better anyway – how are you going to flick through Instagram when you've got to read what's happening on screen?
Weird dubbing aside, Dark is pretty close to nailing it. It's the perfect show to watch at this time of year, wrapped up in a blanket while night falls; while frost settles outside and the damp creeps in. It's unsettling and engaging escapism for a confusing world. In fact, as Christmas draws near, consider it the necessary and the best antidote to watching Love Actually YET AGAIN.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF NETFLIX.
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 newBreaking Bad? Was Shimmer Lake the newMemento? That trend lulled when we entered fall, as the streaming service debuted decidedly distinctive series like psychological thrillerMindhunter and sleeper critical favouriteAmerican 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.