Today my latest television obsession is finally hitting Netflix: Archive 81. Inspired by the podcast of the same name, Archive 81 is another in a long line of great supernatural series and thrillers cooked up at Netflix.
Fans of shows like The X-Files, Stranger Things and Twin Peaks will appreciate the suspenseful, character-driven plot at the heart of this series. In many ways, Archive 81 is like a love letter to those shows and movies like Rosemary’s Baby, Solaris, and The Ring. The show wears its references proudly, creating a compelling nesting doll of easter eggs for diehard genre fans.
Netflix’s Archive 81 season 1 review
Two newer films immediately come to mind when watching Archive 81 are the recently released films Censor and Broadcast Signal Intrusion, both of which dealt with similar subject matter: VHS tapes. It’s funny that we’re finally far enough away from VHS tapes that we can look back on them almost romantically, and they’ve inspired a lot of chilling stories as of late.
Like Censor and Broadcast Signal Intrusion, Archive 81 follows someone trying to solve a mystery by unraveling the contents on old tapes. In this case, our protagonist Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie) an archivist who restores old video footage to its former glory.
Dan is hired by a mysterious company led by the enigmatic Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan) to restore an old collection of videotapes discovered at the site of the Visser after it burned down in 1994. Virgil wants Dan’s help finding out what happened at the apartment before then by restoring video footage from a grad student, Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi), investigating the building as part of an oral history project.
The series is created by Rebecca Sonnenshine, best known for her work on shows like The Boys and The Vampire Diaries and also features James Wan as an executive producer. Unlike some of Wan’s more over-the-top and campy projects (like Malignant), Archive 81 is much more pared-down. It’s very atmospheric and character-driven, which works in the show’s favor. Some people might not like its slow-burn narrative, but I was riveted throughout all eight episodes of Archive 81‘s runtime.
The series moody and unnerving tone is a great credit to Rebecca Thomas, who directs several episodes. The series reminded me of her previous series Limetown, another somber mystery series with enthralling characters based on a fictional podcast. That said, I think Archive 81 has broader appeal than the short-lived Jessica Biel-led series despite their similar color palettes and vibe.
Fans looking for the next jaw-dropping, stomach-churning, action-packed horror series (maybe something like Brand New Cherry Flavor) will have to look elsewhere because Archive 81 is much more understated, albeit just as engaging.
A love story sits at the heart of this tale as Dan forges a connection to Melody across decades. He becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her and the Visser as if he can save her across decades.
Athie and Shahibi are exceptional casting choices. It’s a credit to Athie that he remains so compelling since he spends a significant portion of the show alone, as Dan is assigned to work in a remote facility in the Catskills with no internet and spotty cell service. It ends up working as a nice parallel to the era we’re all currently living in amid the pandemic, and suddenly Dan’s desire for connection, even through a screen, feels very relatable.
You won’t find blood and guts here, but I can’t entirely agree with reviewers that have said the show isn’t “scary.” It’s more story-oriented and dedicated to its characters. Still, those who appreciate a little ambiguity with their horror will enjoy the subdued atmosphere and the scares that creep up on you rather than, literally, jump out in your face.
A seance creates the perfect amount of tension in the fourth episode, building to a gut-clenching moment at the end that feels well-earned and very evocative of the show’s vibe as a whole. It builds and builds and builds, making the frightening and revealing moments all the more disconcerting. It’s affecting, and the dread it builds is unrelenting.
The two things about Archive 81 that did frustrate me a little were the constant hand-holding and the character of Mark, played by Matt McGorry. McGorry is fine in the role, but Mark feels more like a plot device to feed Dan information from the outside than a real character. Sometimes it felt like Mark belonged on another show altogether, and I didn’t always find the friendship between him and Dan believable. The show even lampshades this at one point.
The second thing that bothers me is that Archive 81 doesn’t always have enough faith in its audience. There is a lot of hand-holding. You’ll get a callback to an earlier episode that feels like a reward to eagle-eyed viewers. Then, before you can relish in the spark of having figured something out, the show spells it out for you, reminding you of that little connection without letting you do any of the work yourself.
It feels like a disservice to a story that clearly wants the audience to feel part of the mystery and investigative process, but one that doesn’t have faith that viewers will connect the dots on their own.
Archive 81 creates an enriching world and fills it with several brilliant and compelling characters, namely in our two lead protagonists and secondary characters like Jess, played by Ariana Neal. It veers toward familiar horror clichés (some of my favorite tropes are in play) with a loving hand, unraveling in exciting ways that feel fresh thanks to the deep and intrinsic characterization we get from Dan and Melody. To quote one of my favorite horror movies of all time—Archive 81 made me feel held as a genre and horror lover.
Add Archive 81 to your watchlist right now!