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The best way to experience Netflix’s Dark might be as a graph. This is a compliment?

The new German supernatural drama has a beautifully intricate plot. Shame about the characters, though.

Get out your conspiracy walls, everybody! We’ve got an intricate mystery spanning time and space.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Dark, a new German Netflix drama with a spooky, supernatural bent, is exactly the sort of show some viewers will devour with great relish.

It’s a puzzle box drama where every piece has its place, where every last plot point fits together. You could draw a graph of this show, and that might be the most pleasurable way to consume it — tracking the way its time-hopping narrative ultimately comes together to make sense. Dark reveals its twists with a great sense of bravura, to the degree that even the ones I was able to predict took my breath away, simply because of how well the series handled the reveal.

But Dark can’t wholly avoid the problem that plagues so many plot-dependent projects with lots and lots of characters, which is to say that except for a handful of those characters, it’s a struggle to key into any one person in the show’s sprawling cast. It has found a unique way to examine how people change and evolve over time (which I’ll say more about after the spoiler warning below), but eventually it becomes so wrapped up in plot mechanics that characters start doing things simply because the plot needs them to.

And yet ... this supposed flaw is devilishly buried inside Dark’s very thematics, which are all about the idea that we don’t really have free will — we just think we do. Things happen because they have to happen. We might tell ourselves the show’s characters are driving the story forward, but maybe it’s the other way around.

All of which is to say that Dark is fun watch that left me thinking less about what it means to be human and more what it means to be a creature constrained by the boundaries of space and time. It’s beautiful, mysterious, and a little bit maddening, and you’d want to take in every little second of the show even if it wasn’t in German with English subtitles, because every aspect of it matters.

To say more, I need to get into heavy spoilers.

Dark is a very simple mystery — except it’s not that at all

You’d be forgiven for spending much of the first episode of Dark believing the show is Netflix’s attempt to clone Stranger Things, but in German. There’s a missing boy, who seemingly vanished without a trace. There are hints of some other world lurking alongside the one we all live in. There’s a group of kids who are seemingly bent on solving a mystery the police can’t crack. There’s even a fair amount of ‘80s music, even though the first episode is set almost entirely in the year 2019.

But then, toward the end of that first hour, a young boy named Mikkel heads into some mysterious caves and vanishes. When we catch up with him again — near the end of episode two — he’s in the year 1986, deposited there by a strange wormhole buried beneath the Earth. That’s when the story begins to cut freely between 2019 and 1986, before eventually adding a third year in episode seven, when 1953 enters the picture.

Dark’s greatest similarity to Stranger Things, then, turns out to be its ability to wildly blend a hugely disparate series of genre influences into the same stew. It calls to mind Twin Peaks, with its setting in a remote, strange forest town, and Back to the Future, with a plot that involves “meeting your parents as teenagers.” The show touches on the age-old philosophical riddle of killing baby Hitler (here reimagined as a suspected budding serial killer). It boasts the generation-spanning scope of the magical realist novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the “don’t go into the woods” eeriness of most fairy tales, and the weirdness of the mystery surrounding Australia’s famous Somerton Man. The show even plays, more or less, by the time travel rules established in the fifth season of Lost.

Spread all of your documents out on the floor. Maybe you’ll see the pattern!

That Dark is able to blend all of these influences (and more!) into something that more or less transcends them is what makes the series so engaging and watchable. The time travel element offers a thrill throughout — especially when, say, Mikkel’s connection to the kids in 2019 is finally spelled out and underlined. And it gives the show a compelling way to examine how people change and shift over time. Some characters are alive in all three time settings and some in only two, but the 33 years they span allow for plenty of differences that become intriguing to parse.

Paradoxically, the deeper the series gets, the more enmeshed it becomes by its own story. Co-creator Baran bo Odar also directs, and he comes up with some ingenious ways to keep past, present, and future all separate, often via clever use of splitscreens. But as I kept watching and the show gained momentum with characters jaunting between time periods, I started wanting it to slow down and make room for the character dynamics.

Dark is fun to try to solve — it’s a treat to tease out the many connections running among the three eras. It’s just that at a certain point, it becomes difficult to care about what’s happening, beyond simply wanting to figure out how everything is connected. The scripts, from a team headed up by co-creator Jantje Friese, are endlessly clever in their construction, while not quite offering enough humanity to dig into.

But as I mentioned above, Dark has a built-in defense against these very criticisms. It’s essentially a show about how, once time travel enters any story, free will has to go out the window if you want the physics to work. The characters feel trapped by the plot because they’re literally trapped by the plot, doomed to forever be themselves and do the dumb things they don’t want to do.

Over on Syfy, 12 Monkeys has made a meal of this very idea, and in future seasons, maybe Dark will too. But I felt trapped between how simultaneously interesting and uninvolving I found the show to be. It’s a solid weekend marathon — especially during the cold winter months — but it loses sight of some things that could have made it more than that.

Dark’s 10-episode first season is streaming on Netflix.