There are several WTF?! moments in the series premiere of Dark, Netflix (NFLX)’s first German-language original that launched in 2017 and concluded its three-season run in late June. The pilot is marked by a nearly silent suicide, kaleidoscopic opening credits, a sinister cave, and a mysterious room where ’80s nostalgia is weaponized for psychological torture. At each interval, the viewer is left confused yet compelled, like a deer staring helplessly into the headlights of its oncoming demise. Yet these moments prove pivotal within the scope of the show, not only for their narrative importance revealed slowly over time, but for the mental roadmap it provides the audience.
Stranger Things and Twin Peaks have often been bandied about as natural comparisons to Dark. Both hold merit as inexplicable small town mysteries engulf the story. But Lost is the best counterpart for the psychological science-fiction series because it represents both Dark‘s greatest strength and its most vulnerable weak point.
In Dark, when two children go missing in a small German town, its sinful past is exposed along with the double lives and fractured relationships that exist among four families as they search for the kids. The mystery-drama series introduces an intricate puzzle filled with twists and a web of curious characters, all of whom have a connection to the town’s troubled history—whether they know it or not. The story’s supernatural elements tie back to the same town across different points in time. Dark is, first and foremost, a time-traveling mystery with deep pockets of unanswered questions driving the narrative.
Though that “mystery box” formula eventually became the undoing of Lost, its easter egg–laden plot engaged viewers, inspired online fan communities, and promoted rabid theorization, which fueled the show’s early prominence. Ongoing puzzles and complex character interactions were the foundation of its success. The same holds true for Dark, which forces the viewers to track multiple characters and families across different points in time and space while inviting audiences to theorize about identities of unknown characters and the root of its supernatural fixations. It is a show that doesn’t just invite close attention—it demands it. But unlike Lost, Dark never lets its complicated and convoluted plot careen out of control.
Creators Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar develop a tightly woven web of intricacy that stays well within the parameters of an endgame. Practically every question is answered, every mystery solved, every phenomena explained. Nearly all of the show’s teasing detours are paid off, and the answers are sufficiently satisfying. Where Lost bled pure entropy as its seasons carried on, Dark feels like controlled chaos—a masterclass in narrative structure.
Dark‘s three seasons roughly track as three acts which raise, complicate and finally resolve heady sci-fi questions. In each iteration, our characters are split into factions and cryptic forces work to bring about the apocalypse through overlapping temporal narratives while others try to prevent it. This brings our main players into close proximity with both their future and past selves, all of whom are crossing paths at different points in their journeys when they may or may not be entirely different people. This, in turn, creates a series of mind-chewing paradoxes that you will spend days trying to think around. All the while, Dark colors its twisted knot with allusions to Greek mythology (the myth of Ariadne), meditations on quantum physics (Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen get a lot of play) and explorations of the philosophy behind Schrödinger’s cat. But these carefully laid building blocks also restrict the plot and, sometimes, prevent its characters from reaching the same emotional heights as a show like Lost, which prioritized the people above the mysteries as it raced toward its conclusion.
TV writers typically fall into two different approaches: plotters and pantsers. Plotters are known for their considered, meticulous series bibles that detail the major beats and reveals of a show. Pantsers, on the other hand, allow the story to come to them more organically as they go along. Dark is most definitely the former, which generally provides a firmer grip on story and can help deliver a tighter ending that steers the plot to a natural conclusion. As a result, though, their characters often come across as rigid and static since they must adhere to a strict plan.
At the center of Dark we have Jonas (Louis Hofmann) and Marta (Lisa Vicari), who serve as our protagonists and the embodiment of the show’s thematic emphasis on family and love. They are fully realized individuals. In many ways, so are the surrounding players, who each receive plenty of background, shading and development. Yet the characters in Dark exist primarily as functionaries of time—they are tools of the tightly woven plot that must fulfill endlessly looping arcs that compose the pillars of temporal space. The past and future are inextricably linked in this show, and each character has a role to play in shaping the relationship between them.
As such, their most critical roles are to serve the story and not necessarily their own individual development. The show rarely allows Jonas to deviate from the well-intentioned failure that he is, and Marta’s final season transformation feels a bit hollow, because their interior journeys in Dark don’t matter as much as their roles in answering the show’s mystery boxes. Nor does Dark‘s plotting allow for a character like Michael Emerson’s Benjamin Linus in Lost to break out of the pack.
For all the well-deserved criticism flung at Lost‘s endgame, the finale still indisputably delivered beautiful character moments that encapsulated the growth and essence of our heroes and villains throughout the show’s run. Dark doesn’t quite match the emotional honesty and trajectory with its characters as Lost because its story was far more bound to a cleverly sketched conclusion, which proved more effective than Lost‘s in-show explanations. Along the way, supporting characters fade ever more into the background as the importance is refocused on the story and our two leads. By the final season, we don’t so much have character development as well-earned endpoints that must be reached for strategic plot purposes. There’s still plenty of beauty to be had, but perhaps not shared across the ensemble cast.
Dark struggles with far more fraught material than the well-intentioned popcorn tales of Stranger Things. Despite the confusing narrative, it is also far more accessible than Twin Peaks. But in the end, Lost is its best counterpart as an example of a modern fantasy where its most impressive asset also proved to be the show’s weakness.
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Dark is available to watch in full on Netflix.