Demonic cults, a fatal fire and creepy compounds — what’s not to like? Yet the show takes itself way too seriously, even if it is brilliantly performed
Is Archive 81 (Netflix) the silliest show on telly? Probably not — but it certainly comes close. Inspired by a podcast about a missing filmmaker, Rebecca Sonnenshine’s trippy, supernatural soirée tells the fictional story of a film archivist, Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie), whose services are called upon by an enigmatic rich dude named Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan).
Dan is very good at restoring damaged videotapes, and that’s exactly what Virgil wants him to do. He offers Dan $100,000 to work on a temporary project in the Catskills, where he’ll live alone in a creepy compound, fully equipped with all the necessary gear — and tasty snacks — to keep him ticking over. Sounds legit, right? Of course not.
For a start, Virgil represents an anonymous corporation with zero online presence. He knows that Dan had a nervous breakdown and that his family were killed in a house fire. There is no WiFi in the compound, and Dan isn’t allowed to tell people what he is working on.
To make matters creepier, the tapes are from 1994, and the footage was recorded by a grad student named Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi) who was working on an oral history project about New York’s Visser Building (it’s not a real place) when it caught fire, claiming the lives of 13 residents, including Melody’s. Can you see where this is going? Me neither. What if I tell you that Melody accidentally stumbled upon demonic cult behaviour in her apartment block while filming her project? Yeah, now we’re on to something.
There is an awful lot going on under the hood in this big, barmy and bewildering horror spectacle. To describe Archive 81 as a show about a man hired to trawl through hours of mysterious found footage is a bit like saying Lost was a programme about a plane crash. Borrowing all the best — and some of the worst — bits from The Blair Witch Project, Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining, Sonnenshine’s unnerving series sets up its stall in a quiet, stately manner. And then, in the final minutes of episode one, it goes full-on bananas.
By the time we get to the end of the third instalment, Dan and Melody’s lives have started to intertwine — and I’m sitting on my couch scratching my head, wondering what the hell is going on. Yep, it’s a proper puzzle of a series. It also takes itself way too seriously — which is odd, given that its unusual plot twists are as daft as a brush.
Still, Archive 81 is not bad television. It’s brilliantly performed — Athie is especially good in a role that requires a whole lot of staring at screens. It’s also the first horror I’ve seen in ages that remembers the importance of a chilling score (full marks to Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow in the musical department).
Even better, Archive 81 is genuinely spooky. Yes, it’s sort of ridiculous. Yes, it all falls apart if you think about it too much (there is no way this thing comes with a satisfactory finale). And yes, as is the case with these things, the ‘found footage’ concept eventually grates. But it’s January. It’s miserable outside. I need a dizzying, scary horror to keep me going, and Archive 81 fits the bill.
You know what I could do without, though? Tales of broken penises. On this week’s First Dates Ireland (RTÉ 2), 24-year-old Jordan from Limerick decided to share with his date — and, consequently, the entire country — the story of how he and his ex accidentally broke his most treasured appendage while “doing the sex”.
Look, I won’t go into details, and besides, Jordan already covered the gruesome parts (he also refused to take the blame, the scamp). What’s important is that he informed Sasha (22) from Mayo that everything was in working order again.
Elsewhere, Eucilene (40) from Brazil, spoke of her late husband, who married someone else while they were, erm, still a couple. It’s even more confusing than it sounds.
Here’s the thing: First Dates Ireland doesn’t need stories about banjaxed members and bigamist hubbies. These are obviously things that come up whenever producers meet potential participants to see if the would be a good fit for the show, and if they might entertain viewers. Hey, we know how TV works, and that’s fine.
But it is at its most ordinary that this likeable series genuinely thrives. See Daniel and Ciara’s lovely, laugh-a-minute first date, which ended with promises of a second and focused purely on the art of two strangers simply getting to know one another over dinner.
First Dates is, by its nature, a bit of a gimmick — it doesn’t need any more to complete its mission. But I do hope Jordan is more careful with his penis these days.
Finally, it was my birthday yesterday. Naturally, I celebrated with an episode of The World According to Jeff Goldblum (Disney+), and guess what? This week, Goldblum was looking at birthdays. In case you haven’t seen it, The World… is a show in which the inimitable Goldy explores and, um, does, er, things, I guess.
Actually, I don’t really know what the purpose of this unusual, National Geographic series is. Basically, our host does something different in each instalment. In one, he investigates the world of puzzles; in another, he rides motorcycles.
Hollywood’s eccentric hipster king meets all sorts of people from all walks of life. He also provides fluffy narration with little or no punctuation. In this episode, he gate-crashes a couple of strangers’ parties and asks a neuroscientist why time moves faster when we get older (I’m none the wiser on that bit).
It is, essentially, a show about everything that occasionally does nothing. But it kinda works. Why? Because it’s Jeff Goldblum, that’s why.