The pilot episode establishes the characters and story by pulling in the viewer with a creepy feel but relies on one or two too many cliches.
This recap of Netflix’s Archive 81 season 1, episode 1, “Mystery Signals,” contains spoilers.
Archive 81 season 1, episode 1 recap
Archive 81 opens with what appears to be a recording off a VHS tape of a woman (Dani Shihabi) running through a stairwell. We can hear her say things like, “Jess, can you hear me?” “They took her!” Suddenly the screen goes black. Until it pops up again, a woman has turned the camera to face her this time. She is panting, breathless, and scared. She says to the camera, “Please. Please find me. Please help.”
She then turns her head, whips the camera around, but we cannot see anything. She suddenly shrieks, “No! Get off me!” A man responds, who sounds like a cop, “You’re going to be fine.” Her response? “Get the f**k off me!”
The Circle is a Twilight Zone before there was Twilight Zone, but it never aired in 1958 because all the tapes had been lost. Dan Turner (The Front Runner’s Mamoudou Athie) is a curator of such things at a museum. He restores such stuff for them. Maybe it connects to the larger story, but we don’t yet know for sure. Because Danny-boy is given a box of tapes that appear to be damaged, his boss, Karen, wants him to restore them ASAP.
When Dan restores the tapes, he plays one. (I mean, has he never watched The Ring or 8MM?). It’s from the opening scene, and her name is Melody Pendras. She is a doctoral candidate in sociocultural anthropology at NYU. (Why are the most angelic women always studying the most boring subjects?). Beautiful, slender, with the largest doe eyes you’ve ever seen, and in this tape with blonder hair, she explains she will study cultural shifts at a building in the East Village. Whoever tapes her turns the camera around at a mirror. Her name is Anabelle (A Kid Like Jake’s Julia Chan), and there are pictures of both of them plastered all around the looking glass. They are best friends, and as they talk, Melody explains she isn’t going that far.
Anabelle replies, “That’s what Amelia Earhart said.”
The work Dan did for Karen is from a prominent donor. His name is Virgil (Martin Donovan), and he owns a company called LMG. The thing is, no one knows what LMG is. Except they seem to be successful since Dan meets Virgil in the LMG New York City high-rise offices. It turns out they have both done their research because Virgil can’t seem to find anyone on the young restorations either. So, he naturally offers him a six-figure salary to restore the rest of the tapes. The catch is he has to do it in their private lab facility in the Catskills. This is the start of any horror movie, and the money is the carrot to get him to go to a remote location. Oh, and did we mention that the site has no internet service or spotty cell service but a top-notch landline that works fine?
As he is about to decide, Virgil drops a bombshell — he knows Daniel’s parents were killed in a fire. It turns out the tapes he needs to restore are from a fire in a building in the East Village where 13 people vanished.
When Dan gets back to his apartment, he falls asleep and wakes up from a nightmare of him, as a child, watching the building burn up in flames. He looks at the video again. There is a picture of Melody with a yellow labrador, and that pooch is wearing a red collar. It’s the same dog Dan had as a child.
Melody has started her oral history project of the Visser building in the East Village. She hears a distant melodic chanting coming from the vent as she lays in bed. Melody opens the cover, and the soft chanting stops. Melody asks, in a quivering voice, “Hello?” A loud pitched noise comes from the video, and Dan has to rip off his headphones while watching one of Melody’s tapes.
The next day, she returns to her plucky nature and begins to knock on doors. She can’t get anyone to cooperate, but she meets a teenager named Jess (Ariana Neal), who is somewhat of a gofer for the entire building. She pays her $25 bucks a week to introduce her to the tenants. Melody interviews her first, an opera singer, who plays music that she heard last night but swears she wasn’t in her apartment. The sounds soon induce a panic attack for Melody.
Meanwhile, when Dan has a break from CSI: Catskills, he goes for a run. Of course, he wanders around the creepy building. He encounters a rat and a large metal fence in the middle of nowhere in the woods. What could it be protecting?
Either way, Dan gets back to work and watches his next tape. Melody is now interviewing Jess and vice versa. Melody explains that the Visser was built on top of a burning building. When Jess asks if people died in what appears to be an effort not to scare the child, Melody tells her no. All of a sudden, Jess looks scared. She slows her chair back from the table, despite her boss’s multiple questions of what was wrong.
Suddenly, she leaps from her chair, looks at the ceiling, and begins to shake. She falls to the ground and is still convulsing. As the tape continues to play, viewing Jess as she falls to the ground across from the running camera, Melody screams for help. However, the recording begins to slow. It turns to that blizzard-like staticity and noise that signals the end of a videotape or a missing section. Then, Dan sees it: A giant ghost or skeleton head appears.
Jess reveals that her mother sends her to church because she believes her episodes are not seizures. Melody makes her feel better because she sometimes feels like a freak. The sociologist tells her to, “f**k ’em.” This makes Jess laugh, and she leans forward and tells Melody that she is glad she is here.
That’s when the videotape cuts to Melody telling the camera, “They took her. They took Jess.” She is cornered in the stairwell. One of them is a resident we saw in the video earlier (he was holding the door for her). The other is the building superintendent. They tell her the sixth floor is off-limits. She then breaks past the man in glasses when two men, wearing what looks like government windbreakers, order her to stop and grab her. Then, a man walks in behind them and says those words we read above in the first section of this article: “You’re going to be fine.”
It’s Dan’s father. The man we saw in his flashbacks. And if that wasn’t enough, as Dan is focused and talking to himself at the shock of his father on the videotape, it begins to pan out slowly. He is being watched. He is on one of about a dozen security screens. A man is watching him. All we see is him from behind.
The man looks a lot like Virgil, the head of LMG.
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