Everything is connected. That’s the mantra at the core of new supernatural crime series Dark, the first big-budget German TV collaboration with Netflix. Unusually for a native language show, the streaming service has gone in big on its promotion, presumably in an attempt to ensnare viewers post-Stranger Things who are searching for something equally spooky to fill their winter nights. Whilst the two shows may share a surface similarity in their tales of missing children, Dark is a fundamentally different experience – chilling, gruesome and relentlessly morose. Depending on your tolerance for the paranormal, it could very well be one of the best new TV shows of the year – or one of the worst.
We’re welcomed into the show with a stark opening. A man writes a letter in a filthy room. He directs it’s recipient not to open it until Nov 4th 2019, at exactly 10:23pm. Then, he promptly climbs onto a chair and hangs himself. The haunting images come from a fever dream that teenager Jonas abruptly wakes from, but bear out in reality – his father Michael hung himself some months ago. Jonas has been locked up in “the nuthouse” (in his own words) until recently, suffering from the trauma of his father’s inexplicable suicide. Now, he’s back home in Winden, a sleepy German town in the shadow of a nuclear power plant and surrounded by endless foreboding forests. We’re told repeatedly early on that “nothing ever happens” in Winden, but that’s a lie – everybody has a secret in this town. This is immediately evidenced as Jonas makes breakfast downstairs, blissfully unaware his widowed mother Hannah is coping with grief in a very different way upstairs – by enjoying some passionate extramarital shenanigans with the local police detective Ulrich Nielsen (Oliver Masucci). He’s barely got his trousers back on before he’s sliding down the drainpipe to return to his own wife Katharina, and their three children.
Whilst Ulrich is busy philandering, there is real police work to be done in Winden – a child has been missing for three weeks. The search for teenager Erik Obendorf provides the plot’s connective tissue for much of the first few episodes, as the show introduces a raft of Twin Peaks-esque supporting characters (and suspects) around the case in swift succession. This could have been overwhelming for viewers so early on in the wrong hands, but creator Baran bo Odar deftly handles it without the need for heavy exposition. Instead, we’re given the opportunity to see how Erik’s absence affects his friends and family in a sensitive and realistic manner.
The gang of teenagers that knew Erik interlink the four main families in Winden, and crucially, their shared histories too. Magnus and Martha are the son and daughter of Ulrich. Martha’s secretly in love with Jonas but is instead dating Bartosz, the son of Regina Tiedemann who owns the local hotel. Then there’s outsider Franceska who’s mum Charlotte Doppler is the local chief of police. Nearly all these families are already fractured in some way through death or infidelity and it’s outside of the main narrative where these characters ‘second stories’ ignite that really compels you to keep watching, as slowly but surely their secret lives begin to coalesce and the burden of the town’s grim history becomes increasingly apparent.
Unusually for a crime drama, the missing victim isn’t just the name of a character we never meet – instead very early on in the first episode Erik is shown to be alive and trapped in a room decorated straight out of the 1980s – with a modified electric chair in the middle that his hooded tormentors regularly torture him on. This raises the stakes in heightening the urgency that surrounds the early part of the series, by informing us of something the characters don’t know – and that the victim’s time is ticking away…or is it? In the show’s opening monologue we’re told that “we trust that time is linear” and very rapidly in the world of Dark that sentiment becomes the most integral – and divisive – plot element.
Whilst the parents in town attend a meeting at the local school to voice their fears for the safety of their own children, the gang head for Winden Caves where they believe Erik’s stash of drugs is hidden. The Nielsens’ older kids begrudgingly bring their youngest brother Mikkel along as they can’t find a babysitter. As they venture toward the entrance something bizarre happens – strange sounds bellow from the cave mouth and the lights across Winden short out. In the ensuing confusion, the gang run away only to find later on that Mikkel is missing – disappearing precisely at 10:23pm, November 4th 2019. How did Jonas’s dead father know this date was significant before it happened?
From here on in, your enjoyment of the show will absolutely hinge on your tolerance for the standard tropes of science fiction or fantasy. It’s no secret the show is advertised as spanning over three specific decades, and the reason for this is revealed very early on – the Winden Caves are a portal that allows time travel for a select few between set times in the past. As a certified geek I had no issue absorbing this idea as fact if that’s the way the story wanted to go, but I can understand it might put other viewers off immediately – and it’s to the showrunners credit that they frontload the concept from the very start to assuage this. It’s not a new premise – indeed, there are many popular shows that have used the same mechanic in recent years – Lost, Flash Forward or Outlander to name a few – but the issue of using it in this context is that it swiftly risks becoming the deus ex machina to explain away pesky plot holes and can ultimately derail the whole narrative. Luckily in Dark’s case, it just about manages to keep its internal logic together thanks to the ingenious ways it intertwines the same set of characters at different ages across the time periods.
The timeline quickly splits into three – 1953,1986 and 2019. Suddenly, there are at times as many as three sets of actors portraying the same character, interweaving multiple narratives across three decades. Outside of the main plot it’s this intriguing juxtaposition that draws you in as your initial preconceptions about certain people are repeatedly challenged – one might be a fine and upstanding pillar of the community in one era for example, only to be revealed as a lawless degenerate in another – but it also examines how the secrets that have scarred generations are created and kept when decisions made decades ago impact the present. Fans of shows like The Missing or The Returned will be familiar with this type of creative territory and Dark presents the three periods in a set of easily distinguished colour palettes so viewers have a common thread to guide them, even including at times the helpful use of split screen to show who is who and at what time. It’s within these little cinematic touches that Dark feels like it owes a larger debt to another German show – Heimat. This popular series told the story of multiple generations of the same family from post-World War One to the present day and although it’s intense character studies aren’t replicated here, there is a distinct hallmark of its creative influence throughout.
Revelations abound as the series progresses through these time periods – not least the fate of Mikkel and his unusual impact on proceedings in the present day – but it’s a testament to the writing on the show that the murders which underpin the narrative become the least interesting element as the plot moves forward. This is partly because the culprit is revealed very early on and we are given the rare opportunity to explore their own history and ultimately, afford them some sympathy for the position they are placed in. Moreover, it’s the strength of the characters’ backstories that provide the dramatic spine which lifts the whole show above its genre confinements. It’s within these stylistic elements where the show does tend to falter most – the more fantastical moments that foreshadow the presence of two opposing outside forces that effectively represent good and evil (or “light and shadow” as the show puts it) throughout the story feel contrived, as they somewhat awkwardly guide other characters into making expositional choices that have ramifications for both sides of the moral equation – especially prominent as the series hurtles toward its conclusion.
Those expecting to be afforded some sense of catharsis by the end of the series will be disappointed, as this is not your typical thriller – nobody is redeemed and there is no definitive resolution as such. Instead, alongside an absolute sucker punch of a final scene, there are a tantalising amount of loose threads left over which the showrunners will presume to pick upon should the show be recommissioned. If you can suspend your disbelief in it’s premise, there is a great show to be found within Dark. Beautifully shot and scored with a disorientating industrial soundtrack spattered with 80s pop hits, it looks and feels like no other series out there right now. Although it shares a commonality with any number of shows that explore the same ideas, it’s able to distinguish itself confidently enough to be distinctive. For me, it was one of the best viewing experiences I enjoyed this year – but your mileage may vary.