“1899” is Netflix’s next big TV experience

The new drama series from the team behind “Dark” is another huge mystery, with a surprising mix of new and old pieces.

Giving a plot summary for “1899” is like describing what a globe of paint looks like when you’re millimeters from your face. You can describe color, texture, and maybe even something about the way the light hits you as part of a portrait, but it’s hard to establish the condition of something in a gallery without being able to see the whole thing.

So I would say that “1899” is a story set on Kerberos, a boat sailing in the Atlantic Ocean at the end of the 19th century. I can talk about Maura (Emily Beecham), an exiled doctor who escaped from the shadows of her past. I can prove that Kerberos Eyk’s captain (Andreas Pietschmann) and a slew of passengers from the comfort of the suites to the cargo area do the same.

But the series’ organizers Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar have staged “1899” in a way intended to be more of an experience where those details mean nothing by themselves. As with their previous offering, “Dark,” “1899” deals almost exclusively in lofty ideas. Everyone on board Kerberos exists more as a possibility than as a spot on a manifest. Part of the show’s appeal is watching each new episode flip another card, discovering the exact kind of conflict that awaits on the other side. It doesn’t take long for “1899” to suggest to anyone watching that all these riders are running away… something.

“1899” isn’t a true anthology, but like many of the quirky dramas that come before it, each episode is initially structured around one person and the events that lead them to Kerberos. Both in the performance and in the eyes of the audience, they are all defined by one shocking event. What all those earlier chapters have to do with the truth behind another missing ship that took off for America months before Kerberos is something that keeps “1899” hidden for as long as possible. Meanwhile, on an objective and practical level, this ship is essentially an entire continent in microcosm.

“1899”

Netflix

This is the lane that Frizi and Bo Adar travel in their television work. Is there some frustration with how dark some stretches of “1899” are? Certainly. Are there some philosophical ideas and concepts that are reduced to their simplest form, even as the show swings by for something more profound? almost inevitably. But as a team of narrative wizards work in their own misdirections and thrive on the purpose of the whole rather than the parts, no one else makes TV quite the way it is.

Painted on a cosmic canvas, “Darkness” takes the story of a German town and turns it into a struggle for destiny and creation. That sense of field here in “1899” comes across more on the visual side, starting with the sweeping shots of Kerberos on the open water. This scale also comes through in the logistics of the ship, especially when it’s over waves that start to upset everything on the ship. As the show moves from the bridge to the deck to the hull to the boiler room, there’s a clear layout of the ship’s physical hierarchy, a schema that seems destined for collapse even before we see everyone’s conditions begin to settle down.

“1899” doesn’t shy away from the story of the DNA he appropriates for his own use. Any time you stage a show about isolated strangers around flashbacks – and back to the present through someone’s eye – the comparisons will come. There are still points to be made that this is a show that uses those familiar ideas for a new ending. Chief among them is her international collection, which draws on the contributions of Isabella Wei, Jose Pimentao, Yan Gael, Maciej Musial, Clara Rosager, and a host of others. “1899” so frequently mixes these passengers together that they are forced to communicate in ways that transcend their mismatched languages. The best performances here (including those mentioned above and young newcomer Flynn Edwards) make use of a more primitive way of getting around the grief and regret that weigh this ship down.

1899 boy

“1899”

Netflix

The more these individual stories begin to converge, the less they feel like standard pieces. Friese and the writing team seize on the idea that despite being on a ship in the middle of the water nowhere (or perhaps because of that), these people are running away from either who they are and who their fellow travelers think they are. Bo Adar represents that flexibility on a visual level, not just in moving between past and present, but in how fundamentally different areas of the ship can be. And as much as the period settings and some of the mysteries of Kerberos require some VFX trickery, there’s still a lot in ‘1899’ that’s tangible. The coal in the boiler room, the output from the telegraph machine, the simultaneous movements of an entire subset of the crew: they all work in their own way to make sure this isn’t just a digital dreamland playground.

A lot of this speaks to what lies ahead for Kerberos and the other forces that venture its way. “1899,” like “Dark,” certainly draws strength from its own performances. Whether withholding background information works in “1899”‘s favor or not, there’s at least some way to the haunted ship’s madness. In many ways, it pays to be as adrift and ignorant as the people playing out the story in front of you. Relying on the same ideas of trust, perception, and truth is what made “Dark” a modern TV classic (and easily one of the best shows in the entire Netflix catalog).

The caveat there is that “Dark” worked best as an inclusive piece. The whole value of “1899” lies in its supposed multi-season arc, which still seems incomplete by design. Being coy over the course of these eight episodes puts the first season into a kind of prologue mode, where the pieces are set up before revealing the room, table, and board those pieces sit on. So, “1899” is long on ideas and relatively short on answers, establishing a dynamic where success or failure depends entirely on who is sailing.

Grade: B+

Season 1, “1899,” is now available to stream on Netflix.

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