While it’s not rare for great TV to be produced in the new Golden Age of TV, it is rare for a TV show to balance complex emotional interpersonal dynamics and simultaneously deliver legitimate scares. Archive 81, produced by THE James Wan, is not a traditionally formulaic TV show in the same vein as the Jeffersons, Love Boat, or ER. Nor is it cram-packed with gaggle of too-pretty and wildly unbelievable Hollywood upstarts.
Archive 81 is the best piece of horror that’s ever dropped on Netflix and rest assured we’ll be talking about this as one of the best things that 2022 will offer us. Yes, you heard that right.
The eight-part series — based on a podcast of the same name — is a fascinating mixture of things you’ve seen before reconfigured in to a tale that’s never been quite told. There’s elements of last year’s Broadcast Signal Intrusion, a dash or two of Lost, hints at the wonderful Shudder podcast Video Palace, drippings of the Panos Cosmatos freakout Beyond the Black Rainbow, and there’s maybe even a nod or two to David Cronenberg’s Videodrome.
The story involves a young video archivist, Dan Turner, superbly played by Mamoudou Athie, who has been asked to painstakingly restore a charred box of video cassettes. Dan’s been approached by an unapproachable and mysterious mega-corporation, LMG. Their CEO, Virgil (Martin Donovan) tells Dan that it’s a quick restoration job and that they’ll pay him 100K, but the tapes are fragile so his work will all need to take place in a hyper-secure compound. And, yes, Dan will be required to do the work all by himself. Alone.
As Dan begins to unearth the contents of the tapes he quickly discovers that they were recorded by a young woman, Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi), in 1994. As Dan soon realizes she has a definite connection to his now deceased father. The coincidences are too real and too frightening to contemplate.
Dan is both faced with the need to finish the task and obtain the 100K payment, but he’s also being deliberately pulled in to a very dark and some what self-obsessed place. The only thing that helps to ground Dan is his weird history podcast producing friend, Mark (Matt McGorry). Mark is Dan’s connection outside the compound and due to its remote nature he’s his connection to all things technological — including the World Wide Web.
In the same way that the VHS horror series was a rumination on contemporary society’s loving fascination with analog technology, Archive 81’s creator, Rebecca Sonnenshine, toys with many of the same needs to help contextualize our collective place in the time space continuum. It’s clear that the last several decades have brought unending and ever-evolving technology to our daily lives, but it’s those analog moments that ground us, slow us down, and force us to to face the more heady questions of mortality and self.
Dan exists in a present-day hyper-digitalized world and he’s slowly unpacking Melody’s pre-digital analog existence. As Dan pulls apart Melody’s self-styled documentary about the quest to find her mother their digital and analog worlds begin to collide in a spooky cacophony of other-worldly malfeasance.
Archive 81 very specifically metes out the details of Melody and Dan’s personal histories. Every element of the story has a time, a place, and an object that harmonious fit together to tell the story of loved ones lost, the need to connect with the physical environment, and the lengths that we’ll all foolishly go to try and unwind time.
Many pieces and parts of this story have been told before, but they’ve not been told in a way that collectively weaves all these elements together so perfectly. From the exquisite casting to the ever-present and beautifully haunting synthesizer soundtrack hum, and even the incredible sets and design work, Archive 81 has it all.
Here’s to hoping that Archive 81 will be back for a second season because — hint/hint — there’s a good likelihood that it will.