A strange, otherworldly tale is buried beneath a frustratingly repetitive outer layer in this adaptation of the horror podcast of the same name.
“Archive 81” is a show that invites, almost demands, constant skepticism. There’s a certain type of simmering paranoia that runs through this new Netflix series, boiling over so clearly that it’s almost impossible to take anything at face value. To some extent, that’s the point. In setting up a story about an unassuming archivist who agrees to restore a series of camcorder tapes from the mid-90s, it’s inevitable that what seems like a simple task will give way to something bigger and more. heavy. What makes “Archive 81” such a disconcerting viewing experience is the way it takes crazy ideas, spanning multiple generations, and boils them down to a pedestrian presentation that robs it of its otherworldly power.
The show’s opening minutes—after a quick cold open with no context, a trick that each successive episode subverts to varying degrees of success—features Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie), an employee of the Museum of the Moving Image who gets a mysterious, improvised job offer. At the behest of an enigmatic CEO (Martin Donovan), Dan is soon whisked away upstate for a particular indentured job. In a remote, team-working facility, Dan meticulously cleans and retransmits fire-damaged footage from a series of interviews taken in an apartment building in New York City in 1994. The architect for this project, Melody Pendras ( Dina Shihabi), films more than just standard conversations over the shoulder, turning the camera on itself enough for Dan to slowly piece together a story behind the story unfolding at the Visser Apartments.
“Archive 81” jumps liberally between the two timelines, with Dan stuck in his cold, drab minimalist video lab and Melody quizzing the tenants on some of the Visser’s weirder quirks. The show oscillates between things getting stranger for Melody in 1994 and Dan’s parallel search for answers nearly 30 years later. Managing the two at the same time is a structural link that originated with the podcast series from which the show is adapted. In the audio, the merging of these thematically linked storylines is a little more fluid, with the idea that any new “tape” could be Melody’s archives or Dan’s.
The circle that this TV version never really fits is what to do whenever Dan watches these tapes. Athie is a versatile screen presence who can play Grandmaster Flash or a reserved love-struck New Yorker, but here he’s mostly forced to react to what everyone else is already seeing. Dan’s task becomes like “Archive 81” itself: a neat series of peeks into another time too calculated to be surprising and too simple to be unsettling.
Without going into too much detail about what Dan and Melody end up finding, it ties into a self-contained lore that, as sprawling as it has the potential to feel, unfolds along a path that becomes rote over the course of eight episodes. of the season. Dan fills out his podcast host pal, Mark (Matt McGorry), while Melody keeps her friend and artistic wild card, Annabelle (Julia Chan), in the loop. This leads to much of “Archive 81” slipping into recap and explanation of rules, usually when a single detail in one of Melody’s strips is enough to explicitly state a connection. It’s not that the show would be any better if it held back more, but most of the world-building steps from “Archive 81” outward are done in a way that feels more obligatory than efficient.
Quantrell D. Colbert/Netflix
In 1994, Melody collects information one by one on her neighbors: a university student with a charming smile, a history buff with old money, the security guard who protects perhaps more than he lets on, the kid being indeed brought up by everyone in the Visser. Through recordings with his mysterious benefactors, Dan reveals more about the personal coincidences between the tapes he watches and events from his own past.
“Archive 81” retains a glimmer of DNA from found sequences, but the further Dan gets into his task and the more able he is to glean sources of information other than the tapes themselves, the less effort is needed to let him take anything back. Melody is filming. Part of the inherent attraction of a story told through salvaged tapes is the idea that there’s something fundamentally unknowable about what’s going on beyond the confines of what you’re watching. “Archive 81” makes that distinction meaningless soon enough and never quite finds a more compelling mystery to put in its place.
There are members throughout the series who try to keep their characters from being confined to a single trait or goal. Chan brings a much-needed levity and spark to a story that’s trapped by the dark cloud that constantly hovers above everything else. Before he ends up being subsumed into the slimy soup of Vissser’s darker side, there’s a faint hint of romance that runs through half of Melody’s timeline. For a story drawn from a distinct melody, composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow make welcome contributions that are truly unnerving. And a few visual stingers really capture the terror this story needs to thrive, especially one near the end of Episode 4, directed by “Spring” duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead.
For the most part, “Archive 81” singularly focuses on the mystery that fuels the dark force in these tapes. The road to this end is sometimes methodical and laborious, and there is rarely a respite to bring in other tonal nuances. The end product — complete with a hodgepodge of rituals and faith, paired with a somewhat flimsy consideration for sanity — exists more like a collection of ideas. While new wrinkles each raise a handful of new possibilities, “Archive 81” rarely decides how and where best to focus its attention.
“Archive 81” is now available to stream on Netflix.