Published on July 18th, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Netflix’s “Dark” or The Unexpected Virtue of Being An Underrated Gem
Netflix’s first ever German-language original series is an absolute knockout of existential science fiction. But so few have seen it. It could’ve been a contender!!
Subtitles. Is it possible that they can impact the enjoyment of a viewing experience? I often wonder if there is legitimacy to the claims of “normies” (non-cinephiles) that “if they wanted to read, they’d get a book.” I certainly remember when I was a teenager and began venturing out into the world of foreign language films, I did get a little cranky about it. It was an adjustment. Many seemingly easy, obvious things are…such as learning to tie your shoes or crack your knuckles or whistle. If you never developed a proclivity for any of those things, they’d seem like a pain in the ass. So that’s why when people put Parasite’s historic Oscar win on a pedestal, I always feel as though all the multi-cultural warm fuzzies being put out into the ether are in vain; people are not all of a sudden going to hurdle over “the one-inch barrier.” Subtitles are hard. They are annoying. And one diamond-in-the-rough foreign language hit is not sufficient practice for people to adjust.
I say all that to calm myself down, to bring my expectations down to Earth. When bingeing Netflix’s German time travel adventure Dark (which I serendipitously timed with the recent release of the 3rd and final season), I was struck with feelings that tessellated between anger and disbelief. The idea that a show this crafty, this mind-blowing, this absorbing could be relegated to the cult following section of Netflix’s oeuvre struck me with such disheartenment. It was the perfect elixir of thought-provoking, character driven storytelling and twisty, theory-fuelling entertainment to be as big as Game of Thrones or Stranger Things. But, alas, I had nothing to do but bring myself back down to reality. A show like Dark just simply will never reach the mainstream heights it deserves. Those dang subtitles are just too…different.
But maybe its for the best. Dark is far from comfort-zone TV and the demo that really enjoys it—or at the very least can manage to follow it—would probably not intersect very smoothly with the Netflix set who just want to turn their brains off and watch something familiar and easy. For Dark to become truly popular, its cultural capital would have to be at the expense of tone-deaf patronizations of daytime TV hosts and Buzzfeed writers posing interview questions to the cast and crew like, “Can you guys even follow it?” or “Do you think time travel really exists?” or “Who are you: Team Jonas or Team Bartosz?”
So maybe its brilliance is most deeply felt as the streaming platform’s best kept secret. I think there is something to the idea that films and shows made in America (or in the English language) have to carry with them the weight of potential popularity. It can be a curse just as much as a blessing, a kind of narrative taxation with only the possibility of representation. The kind of liberated storytelling Dark showcases could very well be the by-product of a quintessentially international “fuck it, chuck it” kind of attitude. The completely bearable lightness of expectation in being a foreign language entity, especially on such a big platform as Netflix.
On the other hand, when you get into it, it becomes impossible not to theorize, hypothesise, extrapolate the data. The show kind of is just asking to explode in the cultural milieu, given the popularity of complex puzzle shows like Westworld or Lost. I’ve never felt a hotter, deeper burning desire to dish about a show with a friend than while I was bingeing Dark. Luckily, I had one (he actually turned me on to it. Thanks, Reid!). But I imagine many will not have the same luxury of detailed water-cooler convos. And that is, undeniably, a shame. Discussion threads on Reddit just don’t quite fill the void.
Dark is a show that is meant to be dissected to an almost futile extent. Its premise is rather difficult to summarize, but I’ll do my best. It takes place in a small German town in which mysterious child abductions have plagued the town with suspicion and paranoia. We follow some teenagers as they navigate the fall-out. One of the teens is Jonas, a sensitive kid who has only recently returned to school after spending time in a psych ward following the suicide of his father. Some weird shit happens, people discover unexplainable phenomena. Perplexing clues emerge, etc., etc. Next thing you know, you’re caught up in a cat’s cradle of time paradoxes and incestuous family trees (those sick European fucks).
I know that description sounds frustratingly vague and a little off-putting. But trust me when I say that the devil in the details. Dark wraps you up in a fascinating entanglement of time periods and causality. The pacing this show has, the dedication it employs in doing due diligence to every little step in this insane journey is a triumph for long-form cinema. Though the audience is kept in the Dark for so much of its runtime, the show mines a deep intoxication from its ambiguous machinations. It emphasizes the entertainment that comes from not knowing, from the edge of your seat viscera of speculation. Dark’s plot is a series of teases, sultry little nibbles at the underlying truth that manage to satiate without giving it all up entirely.
It’s a show that requires thorough examination; preparing for each season is like studying for a test. But it’s a glorious and thrilling form of studiousness, one that rewards in the way a scientist’s life’s work comes into focus when they finally have that “Eureka” moment. It’s truly like nothing I’ve ever seen from television (or streaming or long-form cinema or whatever the hell you want to call it). We’re treated to the kind of rare series that checks off all the boxes and definitely could’ve penetrated its way to the forefront of popular culture if it were in English. It has the momentum in spades to be appetizingly unique while also being sufficiently nourishing–even bordering on straight-up addictive.
But while those dang subtitles will forever be in the way of reaching the notoriety it deserves, I’ve made peace with it. In fact, I think it’s useful to look at it as a positive. Perhaps it should be seen as a luxury to have at our disposal such intricate opuses that we can call our own—“we” being those with the stamina to get in good enough shape to hurdle that “one-inch barrier.” Perhaps some works of art end up inaccessible for a reason; perhaps some gems shine the brightest when left undiscovered.
There is a certainty that comes with being a fan of Dark, a reassurance that you made it to the other side. That you’ve developed the muscle memory to enjoy a whole new world of entertainment. It’s simply a kind of athleticism. And if you don’t bother to flex that muscle, that’s fine too. You probably have real-life muscles to fawn over. But for those who have what it takes, just enjoy it. Shows like Dark prove that the pain is worth the gain.
Check out the spoiler free trailer below.