Archive 81 (2022), a new eight-episode horror series on Netflix, tells the story of Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie), an archivist who is offered $100k to go to a remote cabin and complete a film restoration project. It’s a beautiful, isolated cabin with no internet and a seemingly endless amount of boxed macaroni and cheese – which has to be someone’s dream situation. As Dan slowly discovers the subject of the tapes – a grad student (Melody Pendras, played by Dina Shihabi) researching a mysterious cult – he finds himself at the center of a deadly and otherworldly investigation.
Dan, who is in the present day, is continually pulled back (both metaphorically and literally) into the 1990s with Melody as she unfolds the mystery of an apartment complex that once (or does it still?) housed a bloodthirsty cult from the 1920s … a time to which we are also pulled back. All of this to say, the plot is very convoluted – especially for eight episodes. At times, I found myself wondering if we even need Dan’s character at all. The entire first season could have just been set in the ’90s with Melody, with a second season then introducing Dan in the present day. Furthermore, I would love an entire season dedicated just to the 1920s and the origins of the Vos Society. Those scenes were fascinating – not to mention the gorgeous costumes and ever-flowing martinis.
In addition to the complicated and overcrowded plotline (which somehow still manages to move along very, very slowly), there are other issues, as well. Despite the solid acting by Mamoudou Athie and Dina Shihabi, their characters (Dan and Melody, respectively) are unrelatable. The only character that I found myself actually invested in was Dan’s best friend, Samuel, played by Evan Jonigkeit, and he isn’t even a central character – more like comic relief. There are also a number of stock-like characters (cue the evil janitor), and, as much as I hate to say it, Jess (played by Ariana Neal), who acts as Melody’s tour guide, got on my nerves.
And then there’s the fact that this is a show that, for the first four episodes, only dallies with Catholicism and questions concerning the afterlife and supernatural phenomena. Due to the subject matter, there was so much potential to add spiritual depth to the show, but instead, it just seems to add religion in order to check it off a list. And then after Episode 4, it promptly drops it and focuses more on the cult – which was the smart move. Their treatment of organized religion adds nothing to the show and merely emphasizes the missed opportunity. Likewise, the depiction of mental illness in Archive 81 comes across as insincere and interacts oddly with their attention to paranoia.
On the surface, Archive 81 hits all the marks, or, as my husband wisely pointed out, its algorithm seems targeted at me and the vast number of our generation who are interested in crime, conspiracies, and cults (apologies for the alliteration) and readily consume media about them. It also had an excellent score, and it was beautifully filmed. However, on the whole, it leaves much to be desired. That said, because the show got increasingly better after the halfway mark, and it does end with a smart setup for a second season, it could be worth the watch if you’re someone like me: eager to consume all the weird, if somewhat disappointing, entertainment you can get.
It's not the '90s without Kurt Cobain10.0/10
Too Much, Too Fast5.0/10
Lack of Spiritual Depth5.0/10
- Directors: Rebecca Thomas, Haifaa Al-Mansour, Justin Benson, et al.
- Writers: Evan Bleiweiss, Paul Harris Boardman, Bobak Esfarjani, et al.
- Stars: Mamoudou Athie, Dina Shihabi, Evan Jonigkeit, et al.
- Platform: Netflix