Archive 81

3 out of 5

Developed by: Rebecca Sonnenshine

covers season 1

Netflix’s spooky thriller Archive 81 is a series that succeeds despite itself. A strong story and an engaging cast survive a structure that’s constantly undermining the tension, and scripting choices that draw too much attention to the show’s flaws. But we’re a sucker for the horror of the unknown, and Archive taps into that Lovecraftian business, blending it with the alure of lost / dated media; propped up by the lore of the podcast on which it’s based, the show thus has a lot of fascinating and fun material to fall back on, so that we want to get up, dust ourselves off, and get back to the episode each time we’re booted out of the immersion.

Mamoudou Athie plays Dan, an archivist for the Museum of the Modern Image in New York, restoring old VHS, Beta, and etc. It’s a specialized skill, but, y’know, he’s surely one of the best… causing mysterious business man Virgil to hire him away from MoMI for a special assignment: restoring some old camera tapes that were damaged in a fire in an apartment building. The promise of the best equipment, the ability to work undisturbed, and a nice paycheck shush away a lot of the Whys of this assignment, as well as why it must be undertaken at an isolated facility somewheres in the woods.

Through these tapes, Dan “meets” Melody (Dina Shihabi), who’d been doing a research project on the tenants of the building some 25 years back, prior to the building burning down. Her project is legitimate, but is also a cover for her search for her mother, who’d abandoned her as a child; recent evidence has suggested she has some connection to the building.

Archive 81 treats the tenants of “The Visser” as quirky, and Dan’s interactions with Melody as a time-swept meet-cute; that is, until weird things start happening at the building, and Dan starts seeing things that seem to connect to him, and to his new boss.

Toss in some building paranoia, and we’ve got good bones for a horror thriller, especially as it proves willing to go off into weirder territories, and does so with a good balance – Melody finding out and filming strange connections; Dan doing research in the modern day and tying it to more legitimate (if still puzzling) findings.

But: the presentation trips over itself in presenting this info. Movie logic is, as we know, tough; horror movie logic is especially prone to flaws, but we go with it most of the time. For example, cell phones not having a signal at key points is always pretty silly, but it’s a fair catch-all for most scenarios. In Archive 81, though, by having a story that’s a little smarter or more involved than the norm, it requires more than catch-alls… but that’s often all it gives us. Why can’t the tapes be restored outside of this one facility? Oh, because they’re too damaged to move elsewhere. But… you moved them there at some point…

Questions like this pile up, and again, it’s more a symptom of the show’s story being interesting enough to merit it; unfortunately, that makes it more obvious when you don’t have a solid explanation to cover such things. This same half-in / half-out mentality extends to the structure: the conceit is that Dan is watching things as occurring through Melody’s tapes, but when we indulge by switching over to Melody’s POV, it’s clear she’s rarely pointing the camera at actual events, meaning Dan is likely just watching people’s feet the entire time. Found footage (which this essentially touches on) is another genre in which “why are you filming?” logic is very tetchy, but again, the show draws attention to Melody pointing her camera at things just enough to make us notice all the times she isn’t.

Furthermore, our writers seem to indulge in some standard horror tropes when it really wasn’t necessary. The jump scares seem to be lazy solves for a potentially slow build, but all they do is ruin the tension; and Dan and Melody come across as simpletons in their reactions, and although the actors sell it, the story could’ve been much more solid with them keeping their cool a bit more – and I’d bet the actors could’ve sold that as well.

By the time we get to a flashback episode, when they’re allowed to drop the Dan / Melody / VHS dynamic, and just tell a story, the ep is actually really solid, through and through, while also – from a top-down perspective – being indicative of the show’s larger problems: because Archive 81 hasn’t been very “strict” with the way it tells its story, jumping to this flashback doesn’t seem like the kind of tonal shock it should. Like, suddenly linear storytelling that fills in plot history should be momentous, and it misses that impact.

Thankfully, that backbone of intriguing story carries through the whole series, which is surely a rarity with tales of this type, often deflating as soon as you get a sense of the answers. But with a bit more trust in the intelligence and patience of the audience, Archive 81 could’ve ratcheted up the tension that much more.