Pick of the Week: Dark Times at Winden High

A couple of years ago, Netflix’s algorithm, no doubt inspired by our apparent enjoyment of “Stranger Things,” recommended a German drama series called “Dark.” It turned out to be a brilliant, compelling, tightly-written work of art that used the medium of a television series to its full potential. The third and final season, or “cycle” in the argot of the show, just dropped on Netflix this summer, so this is a perfect time to get into it.

Too often, a successful television series goes awry after a season or two, when the creators have finished the story they originally pitched, but find themselves unable to refuse commercial pressures to keep milking the franchise for money. I’m looking at you, “Stranger Things.” “Dark” is different. As becomes abundantly clear in the third season, it was always conceived as a trilogy, and director/writer pair Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese stuck to their vision. I look forward to future work from this duo, but the ending of “Dark” should keep them well clear of the “just one more season” trap. This series is over.

Without spoiling too much, “Dark” is a time travel story. This is well-trodden ground, and it’s very hard to do anything new with it. Previously, the best case for such stories was something like “Primer,” a tightly engineered film that resolved all of the inherent paradoxes of time travel, at the expense of all other elements of the narrative. While I enjoyed the logical consistency of that movie, its flat characters and forgettable cinematography functioned more like components in an elaborate machine than proper elements of visual storytelling. I understood what happened to everyone, I just didn’t care.

“Dark” runs much deeper. It shares the precision and internal consistency of the best works of its kind, but resolves them in a much more satisfying manner. It also features a cast of memorable, fully developed characters, believable people who’ve found themselves in an unbelievable situation. Winden, the fictional German town in which the show is set, takes on the feeling of a real place, and we follow the arc of its development through several generations of residents.

I came to care about these people. Some are good, some are bad, and most are just trying to get by. They struggle against each other, but no side is clearly good or evil. At the core of the series is a tragic tale of love and loss, told beautifully. Everything, from the dialogue and casting to the soundtrack and lighting, serves the story.

As in any epic, there are a lot of characters, and in this case they often have bizarre connections across time and space, so it can get confusing. My daughter took notes while she was watching it. While I didn’t resort to that, a few internet searches for the show’s family tree did help me review the relationships before each season. If you’re less particular about tracking every sub-plot, you can just watch it and trust that any apparent contradictions will be resolved eventually. Winden may be a puzzling place at times, but in the end – and the beginning – it will all make sense.