It would seem that every outlet possible has gotten into the business of creating content all of its own, but Netflix still seems to remain the gold standard. I’ve only begun to explore some of their impressive catalogue, and I’ve had a few solid recommendations from their portal. One of the hot properties right now is a little something something I’d read about called Archive 81: having just finished viewing it over the weekend (with the wifey), I thought I’d put up a few thoughts. Mind you, this won’t be a full review as I don’t quite think the show merits it: that’s not an insult but rather an admission that I probably don’t have enough reflection on it to justify a full review. (Its ending is a bit – erm – confusing?) Should that change and I decide to rewatch it (extremely unlikely at this point), maybe I’ll do an individual episode breakdown the way I have with other shows. But right now? This’ll have to do.
For those unaware, Archive 81 is a Horror/Fantasy (with some very, very light Science Fiction elements) that involves Dan Turner (played by Mamoudou Athie), a video archivist who’s hired to restore a series of old tapes recently discovered and thought to have been destroyed in a fire. The recordings all center around budding investigative journalist Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi) and her efforts to uncover a mystery surrounding the curious Visser Building, an apartment building destroyed by fire and linked to a possible cult. As fate would have it, Turner and Pendras are linked by a shared history … but I won’t spoil it for those either in the process of watching the show or those yet to have found it. Suffice it to say, their shared background figures prominently into nearly all of the show’s various character arcs.
Interestingly enough, I’ve read that Archive 81 is actually a program derived from a podcast, an audio show that’s described as being one of those ‘found footage’ shows that lasted three seasons and appears to have involved different storylines. Director James Wan is attached as executive producer, and the man definitely knows a few things about bringing serious frights to audiences as he’s done previously with projects like Saw (2004), The Conjuring (2013), and Malignant (2021). Other stars of the show include Evan Jonigkeit, Julia Chan, Matt McGorry, and Martin Donovan.
An awful lot has been written about Archive 81 to date, as the show continues to be a hot property for the streaming giant. Much ado has been made about the show’s structure (it’s part found footage, part conventional drama); while a great deal of it has been complimentary about the premise, I’ve found critics struggling a bit to praise the substance of the central mystery, probably because there a bits obviously still obscured after digesting its eight episode first season. I’d argue that it’s still a show worth watching – flaws and all – as there’s enough chocked between the start and the finish to keep most folks glued to their sets in much the way Turner is glued to his.
However, I’m also comfortable with pointing out a couple of problems I’ve encountered along the way.
Much like ABC TV’s treacherous Lost, Archive 81 spends a fair amount of time heading down rabbit holes that essentially appear to go nowhere. Some of this is owed to the fact that found footage stories only work effectively if there’s plenty of narrative misdirect, and the show spends some time pointing fingers in directions where storytellers want you to look, perhaps expecting you to find more there than they’ve revealed (or, maybe, don’t have plans on revealing). It’s in my nature – as a storyteller and viewer – to naturally suspect screenwriters who introduce a character but then give little supporting reason for this person to even exist in this show: there are a few of these in 81 (I won’t name them because one or two do figure into the finale), and they become easy targets in some of the show’s more predictable potboiler moments.
Lastly, Archive 81 at its core bears a huge similarity (so far as this reviewer is concerned) to Netflix’s other popular streaming property, Stranger Things … so much so that I’m surprised the network picked it up. Things’ Upside-Down World is, thematically, a bit deeper and darker than 81’s Otherworld; but they appear to be grounded in similar storytelling ideas involving twisted perceptions, precarious influences, and secret beings. Granted, 81’s is a bit more intellectually driven, but I’d still call them ‘brothers from another mother,’ if you understand the phrase.
As I said, I don’t at this point intend a full review; I just wanted to put up a few thoughts regarding the show and the experience of watching it. As of today’s date, Netflix hasn’t renewed it for a second season – I suspect they will – but 81’s creator and showrunner Rebecca Shonnenshine has already teased online that there were a few threads only dropped in Season 1 that were prepping for the direction they were taking with a second. I think that’s good because the finale really raised far more questions than she answered across the smattering of episodes delivered; and I, for one, would really like a better explanation of what the Hell just happened.