'Dark,' a Show About Time Travel, Could Have Been Great - if Germans Had a Sense of Humor

'Dark,' labeled as the German 'Stranger Things,' is all about time-traveling teens. Sounds like fun, right? Well, think again

A scene from 'Dark.'
Netflix

Due to some of my extra-journalistic interests, Ive hosted quite a number of Germans in my home. All were friendly and polite, surprisingly warm, not to mention full of guilt feelings, but also – with a single amazing exception from Hamburg – totally lacking a sense of humor. Not just that they couldnt tell a joke, had poor comic timing, forgot the punch line and could hardly see anything amusing in the mundane things of everyday life, they had absolutely no concept of goofiness. You couldnt even laugh with them about All for One, the ridiculous theme song by Bryan Adams, Rod Stewart and Sting, from the film The Three Musketeers and its even more ridiculous video. And believe me, I tried, keeping the VH1 Classics channel running continuously in the background. It reminds me of one of the great scenes in 30 Rock when Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) is sprawled on the sofa in his office, as the narration from the black-and-white TV show hes watching intones, Industry castrates art. The only honesty is in suicide.

I cant watch any more of these German sitcoms! he says in frustration.

A lack of humor is also what keeps Dark, the German series now airing on Netflix, from being must-see viewing. Created by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, Dark, which is already being called the German Stranger Things because of its Eighties motifs, is a supernatural crime series set in one small town in three parallel time dimensions, following three generations of families there. In other words, even without having to read the subtitles to follow the action, its not so easy to understand just what is happening (which explains why it took me more than a month to finish it. You will not be binge-watching this show, and thats a promise).

And whats happening is that teenage boys are starting to go missing in the vicinity of the nuclear reactor in the seemingly pastoral town of Winden. The disappearances deeply shake up the townspeople in a place where everyone knows one another. They affect the future, the past, friendships, business, families, romances as well as the delicate social fabric of the local high school. Very soon – so this does not count as a spoiler – it turns out that the missing havent been abducted to another place, but rather to another time period, and the search for them leads to intersecting timelines and revelations about Windens dark past.

High school? Time travel? Missing teens? Sounds like fun, right? Well, think again, preferably in German. The frame story draws inspiration from Twin Peaks and Back to the Future in equal measure, two works in which humor is an intricate part of the DNA. Youve got your remote town where evil seethes just below the surface, and your time-traveling high-schoolers, so you might expect just a little less solemnity. But when, in the very first episode, one character says, Life is continuous suffering and pain. There is no God with a plan. There are no answers. There is no comfort. All is chaos, all a viewer can do is nod in agreement, breathe deeply and let out a sigh of despair.

Damn, why did I start watching a show called Dark that opens with a suicide scene? The comparisons to Stranger Things are also mainly misplaced. Watching doesnt lead to any cathartic pleasure, nor does it arouse any wistful nostalgia – unless, that is, youre nostalgic for the Chernobyl disaster (Those were the days, huh?). And even when the soundtrack features a weepy Tears for Fears song, its done as a crude copy – or homage to if youre more kindly inclined – of the high school entrance scene in Donny Darko, complete with the slow-motion opening of the school bus door.

Rewarding viewing

None of this means that Dark isnt a good show. Not everything in this life has to be fun. Its demanding, complicated, full of question marks, brimming with loop upon confusing plot loop that require you to pay attention to every detail if you want to understand whats going on. But ultimately, it can be a rewarding viewing experience that leaves you truly pondering the meaning of life. And its German-ness has some positive sides too. Foremost of these is that the characters are quite different from the clichs and stereotypes weve grown accustomed to in English-language shows.

For example, I have never seen any high-school students like these on TV, in all the hundreds of shows about high school I must have seen in my life. In fact, I would have liked to have seen more of them, and of their very stern school. The cops, the local business mogul and the feminine rivalries are also nothing like what were familiar with. As a result, the plot developments are continually surprising, as we dont have the usual narrative conventions to cling to. Any attempts to guess what the future holds will be futile.

Theres just one thing I dont get about Dark, or for that matter, about any show set in some isolated spot where evil keeps striking: Why dont the people there leave? We experience tragedy after tragedy along with the people of Widen. We keep returning to the towns traumas that have been hanging over it since the 1950s, and were supposed to just take it for granted that the townspeople go on living in this accursed place. Why hasnt anyone gotten the point yet and hightailed it out of there? Just what are they waiting for? Do they all harbor a death wish? Maybe its just another one of those German things that are a little beyond me.