A head trip from the creators of Dark, 1899 is a multilingual mystery box that follows far too many characters on a voyage to America. Right away, the series establishes that all may not be as it seems via opening narration by Maura Franklin (Emily Beecham), who talks about the human brain’s myriad capabilities before she’s revealed to be a patient in a mental hospital. Then, suddenly, she’s on the steamship Kerberos, with scars on her wrists and a mysterious letter in her luggage but no idea of how she arrived there.
Such is the mystery that’s meant to propel viewers through 1899’s eight hour-long episodes, all of which open with a moody cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and close with classic-rock needle-drops that are somehow even more bluntly obvious. Early on, just about the only thing we know for sure is that another, similar steamer disappeared without a trace along the current route of the Kerberos, and that it was portentously named the Prometheus.
The Kerberos’s well-to-do travelers won’t stop whispering about the Prometheus over breakfast, cheerfully oblivious to the filthy, cramped conditions of the less moneyed passengers below deck. Most of the first episode focuses on setting up these characters and their class dynamics, and eventually they’re deposited at the lost Prometheus, which is dilapidated and empty aside from a creepy mute boy (Fflyn Edwards) who’s locked away in a cupboard.
The problems that will plague 1899 across its eight episodes come into the focus far sooner than the lost Prometheus does. Impossibly broad and simple, the characters speak many different languages but are lucky if they each get more than one distinguishing trait. Though the characters are often paired with someone who doesn’t speak their language at all, it never seems to stop them from monologuing to each other in their native tongue anyway.
Subsequent episodes provide snippets of the characters’ painful histories, but no one is defined by anything more than their attire, obsessions, or traumas: Daniel Solace (Aneurin Barnard), who has a bug in the pocket of his big black coat; Anker (Alexandre Willaume) and Iben (Maria Erwolter), the God-fearing parents of Tove (Clara Rosager) and Krester (Lucas Lynggaard Tønnesen); Eyk Larsen (Andreas Pietschmann), the Kerberos’s drunken hunk of a captain; and Ling Yi (Isabella Wei), who speaks Cantonese but dresses like a geisha.
The character pairings are meant to emphasize their differences yet only underscore how thin they all are. If characters aren’t simply following the breadcrumb trail of mystery, then they’re seething or brooding in a corner somewhere for missing out. One thing that 1899 is not, for the most part, is slow. The series hurtles through plot twists and character reveals at a pace that gives us no time to ground ourselves and become attached to the characters involved. People are constantly being knocked out by other characters and separated only to regroup a few scenes later to continue whatever it was that they were doing. Everyone aboard the ship quickly splinters into factions, and then they just as quickly set their differences aside.
1899 offers up a few arresting images, like a weird black pyramid and the triangles found in everything from clothes and carpet to jewelry and facial hair, which provide some intrigue in the early episodes and feel like a promise of cohesion. But ahead of the predictable and unsatisfying cliffhanger, the series slows to a crawl, and there’s an inescapable sense that it’s built every inch of its reveal-driven plotting around a mystery that can’t even manage to be very mysterious.
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