We had a few rare spare cycles in our ever-shrinking TV watching schedule and it just so happened that Dark came out on the same day and came highly recommended from io9 (honestly, I didn't make it past the headline before we started watching...it all kind of just happened very quickly). And, well, damn, this show is freaking amazing.
It's hard to describe Dark without getting spoilery, so I'll try for a paragraph then drop into light spoiler territory afterward. But my heartiest recommendation is to stop reading now and just watch it to let it's multitude of mysteries unfurl and discoveries reveal themselves.
The influence of Lost is rife throughout Dark and yet, it's a completely different beast. It has the same sense of layering mystery upon mystery with a set cast of characters, slowly revealing their pasts and how it affects the modern day. Like Lost it has character drama that works independent of the central mysteries of the show, so there are always multiple layers in any given scene. Unlike Lost, however, these layers of the personal and historical begin to inform the overall narrative thrust, often in unexpected - yet completely logical - ways. Even as the mysteries begin to get solved, there's so much momentum to the character arcs, and so many smaller, curious pieces left unexplored, that you're investment never wanes. Most shows that have tried to replicate the Lost structure wind up either drowning in their own complexities or have to abandon the complexities for something more straightforward for the long haul. Now, Dark is only 10 episodes for its first season, so it remains to be seen if it can carry this propulsive strength through a second or even multiple additional seasons, but this is Stranger Things-level engrossing.
Okay, that wasn't very spoilery...but this will be:
Dark is set in the almost-there future of 2019 in a small German town. Its chief economic supplier is the nuclear power factory, those iconic cooling towers often looming ominously in the background. As the show begins, a man commits suicide in his attic art studio, leaving a note that tells the reader not to open it until a very specific date and time. Then, months later, the man's son, Jonas, returns to school after spending some time in a psychiatric facility, only to find his best friend Bartosz is now dating Martha, the girl he kissed just before his father died. He also returns to a town riled with anxiety over the disappearance of a missing teenager known for dealing drugs around the school. Martha's mother is the high school principal while her father, a police detective in town working the disappearance, is having an affair with Jonas' mother. Bartosz' mother runs a hotel which is struggling in the wake of the disappearance, while his father is the current plant manager at the nuclear power facility, scheduled to shut down in 2 years. One evening, Bartosz, Martha, Jonas, and Martha's older and younger brothers Magnus and Mikkel join them in the woods to search for the missing boy's stash of drugs. They find the drugs near the entrance to a cave, but Franziska, a girl disliked by the other teens, has found them first. A scuffle ensues when the kids' flashlights flicker and a foreboding noise erupts from the cave. The kids all run, but in the end Mikkel has gone missing.
The show introduces effectively four different families, and at first seems like a teen drama, but eventually reveals that every character from various generations has a role to play, and that the characters are all interconnected in various ways. The teens are just one component. An opening narration hints at the connective threads using the visual of adjacent pictures and colored yarn stringing between them.
There's a theme of repetition, that time can cycle and that the events of the past can return again. 33 years prior, a boy went missing and was never found. It was Martha, Magnus and Mikkel's uncle. Now Mikkel is missing but a body is found in the forest the next day, face mutilated wearing clothes from the 1980's, a walkman laying next to it. It's not Mikkel, and the police can't figure out who it is. There's a strange type of mud next to the boy not native to where he was found, but Franziska's mother, the chief of police, knows there's that type of mud near her father-in-law's cabin, but she can't be sure there's a connection. Franziska's grandfather has dementia but seems to ramble on about events repeating themselves and knowing how to stop it.
Martha's father is desperate to find Mikkel, and becomes increasingly reckless... deep in the cave he finds a steel door with a radioactive warning sign. He suspects the boy may be on the power plant's grounds, or perhaps even that Bartosz' father knows something more about it. But the power plant keeps its security tight and refuses to voluntarily let the police search the grounds, and wields its influence in delaying a search warrant. Meanwhile a stranger to town sets up in Bartosz' mother's hotel. He seems to wander around town knowingly, and his room is set up with a completely different set of connecting threads from the show's beginning.
Eventually we learn some of the parents history, with trips to 1986, and grandparents history in 1953. The layers they reveal are incredible, and their role in the larger mystery of deaths and disappearances is integral. It's how the show navigates both old wounds and repeating patterns that is its true brilliance though. We see among the teens similar drama that their parents engaged in, and the parents cant seem to escape wounds made long in the past. The grandparents cycle are that much further distanced and yet the threads still connect. Long held beliefs about certain characters that seem to be a certainty at the start are called into question the more time we spend with them through the various ages.
By the end most of the mysteries are revealed and yet they just seem to ask more questions. By the the half-way point it feels like the show is barreling towards closing a full circle, a satisfying 8-hour movie complete upon itself. However, by the end it turns out to be more a celtic trinity knot, and this may just be the first loop. It's a complicated show, in part because of its large cast seen across multiple decades (it's often challenging to keep who's who straight, but rewarding to do so), but also because of the interwoven cause-and-effect that aren't always directly connected for you by the show. What's even more brilliant is how effectively Dark manages to show you just enough to draw conclusions but not enough to do so conclusively. It manages to give itself just enough leeway to pull the rug out from under you if it needs to. It never does, not quite that dramatically anyway, but whenever the inferred logic is supplanted by the reality, it's just as logical. This show doesn't get lost in its own complexities.
The cast is uniformly great, having to depend on a lot of child and teen actors. Of course, I don't understand the language, so subtitles can be quite forgiving on line delivery (Netflix has an English language dubbed track, but I couldn't watch that past the first 2 minutes).... the emoting, then, is completely on point. It's also a great looking show, heavy in shadows adding weight and darkness, with an almost David Fincher-like touch.
In this "Golden Age of Television" there are still surprises, like a German-language program with no discernible stars that can compete or even better some of the best television we have going. Dark is a genre drama that interweaves the genre and a the drama in utterly compelling ways. It's a show that doesn't dumb itself down, but it gives you just enough help to not get totally lost amidst its intricate knot work. If there's anything disappointing about it, it's that we have to wait for more.