Stream it or skip it?

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There’s been a trend of having podcasts — mostly of the scripted and fictional variety — turned into streaming series. There’s a good reason: Like old radio plays, fictional podcasts typically tell stories that take advantage of the audio-only medium. But translating the audio-only story into something visual is tricky. by Netflix Archives 81 is based on a popular scripted podcast that involves two timelines and supernatural events. Does the adaptation work?

ARCHIVES 81: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?

Opening shot: A blurry image from an old videotape of a young woman running down a stairwell shouting “Can you hear me, Jeff?”

The essential: Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie) is an expert archivist who works for the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. His specialty is taking video tapes that have been damaged or deteriorated due to adverse storage conditions and recovering what was recorded there. His current project is trying to recover a pre-blurred area TV series that had sat in someone’s basement for decades.

But his boss entrusts him with a project from a “big donor” on which he must work; it’s a Hi8 tape that was damaged in a fire. When he restores the tape, he sees two young women in an apartment. One of them, Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi) is about to move into a building called The Visser. Her goal is to interact with residents for her anthropology thesis. Dan watches the Visser; it burned down in 1994, leaving 13 people missing.

He does such a good job on the tape that he gets called into the offices of mysterious client, Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan) at a company called LMG. Donovan wants him to restore the rest of the tapes in their possession. He will have to do this in a bunker in the Catskills and must keep the contents top secret. The salary is $100,000. When Virgil mentions that he knows Dan’s family died in a fire when he was a child, Dan panics that he knows something that is not public knowledge.

But he sees something in the pictures that makes him curious. He saw his dog in a photo from the video he restored. He tells his friend Mark Higgins (Matt McGorry), who hosts a supernatural podcast, that he needs to see the link. Mark tells her that he sees things that aren’t there.

Dan goes to the research center and begins restoring the tapes. This is when we change perspective for Melody’s, moving into the Visser earlier in 1994 and trying to find someone – anyone – who will talk to it. The supervisor tells him to avoid the sixth floor. She finally meets Jess (Ariana Neal), a girl who is basically a gopher to everyone in the building.

While interviewing Jess, however, the girl has a fit of sorts. Watching this footage, Dan sees some sort of demonic image on the screen that sends him scrambling to find cell coverage to call Mark about what he saw. He still can’t get any information about Melody either; it is as if it did not exist. The next footage he sees is of Melody telling the camera that someone has kidnapped Jess.

Julia Chan as Anabelle Cho in Archive 81
Picture: Netflix

What shows will this remind you of? Curiously, the multiple delays in Archives 81 remind us of Showtime’s recent hit yellow jackets, but the scary factor in Archives 81 is definitely different.

Our opinion : Archives 81, created by Rebecca Sonnenshine and written by Paul Harris Boardman, is based on a fictional podcast of the same name. They kind of found a way to take a show that involves a lonely man in the Catskills watching a decades-old videotape into a thriller that makes sense. As Dan goes through the archives, he’s going to have more questions about what happened to the Visser in general and Melody in particular.

In the first episode, we still don’t know exactly what Melody stumbled upon while doing her thesis, but from the show’s description, we do know that she goes against a dangerous cult that lies in the Visser. What we wonder is if and how the two timelines will merge and how long it will take. At some point, we’ll get tired of watching Dan stare at a monitor and then run into the woods when he discovers something strange.

We know that Dan’s life was haunted by the fire that took away his family and that there is no small connection between the two fires. And Athie is excellent at showing that there’s a river of pain flowing beneath his essentially stoic manner. But we were definitely more intrigued by the 1994 timeline, showing Melody’s point of view. Shihabi’s role is more dynamic than Athie’s, just by the nature of what they’re being asked to do at the start, and we were much more interested in what she was exploring than what was going on with Dan.

But we suspect that will change as the series progresses. And any show that makes the job of a videotape restorer and archivist at least a little interesting deserves the time to let its story unfold.

Sex and skin: Nothing.

Farewell shot: Dan watches footage of Melody seeking help for Jess’s disappearance and sees a familiar face: her late father Steven (Charlie Hudson III). Then we exit that scene and see this room and all the other rooms on a massive screen, watched over by Virgil.

Sleeping Star: Matt McGorry is barely recognizable as Mark, but he’s a good connection to the outside world for Dan, and he makes the most of his screen time.

Pilot line bridge: None that we could find.

Our call: SPREAD IT. We still wonder if Archives 81 can effectively piece together its timelines into a cohesive thriller. But it’s a promising start, thanks to the good performances of Athie and Shihabi.

Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and technology, but he’s not fooling himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.





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