As Dan (Mamoudou Athie), an employee at New York's Museum of the Moving Image, prepares to get to work on a reel of ancient quadruplex videotape from the late 1950s he's been informed is "in terrible shape" early in the eight-episode first season of the Netflix series Archive 81, a small smile crosses his face. This is what he does, and no one does it better. Gloves on and cleaning fluid in hand, Dan gets to work trying to revive seemingly dead footage from a never-aired television series called The Circle, a pre-Twilight Zone horror series concerning a creepy cult committing a human sacrifice. But before he can finish his boss sends him another assignment, a confidential rush job involving a badly burned videotape from 1994 commissioned by a major donor. Simple enough, Dan thinks. Bringing the tape back to an apartment filled with eight-track players, VCRs, and other pieces of outdated tech, he restores a short, seemingly mundane clip in which a cheery grad student named Melody (Dina Shihabi) talks about her upcoming work at an East Side apartment building known as the Visser — a building, Dan learns with a little research, that burned to the ground the same year as Melody's recording. Gifted at clearing up images, Dan can see there's a mystery here he'd like to uncover. What he can't yet see, however, is how soon he'll become a part of it.
Developed by Rebecca Sonnenshine (The Boys) and adapted from a podcast of the same name, Archive 81 explores a mystery across two parallel (but sometimes overlapping) timelines. In the first, set in the present day, Dan takes a job restoring more of Melody's recordings offered by a mysterious CEO named Virgil (Martin Donovan), whose courtliness and expressions of concern don't really mask that he's not telling Dan the whole truth. He is, however, offering a lot of money for seemingly little work, but there's a catch: Because of the tapes' delicate condition, Dan will have to perform the work at a remote Catskills compound with no internet access but filled with the outdated physical media he loves. It's an offer he can't refuse, even if he suspects he probably should.
In the second timeline we follow Melody — sometimes through the footage Dan is restoring, making Archive 81 play at times like a found footage horror film, but more often through more conventional filmmaking — as she settles into her new apartment at the Visser and gets to know her neighbors while trying to get to the bottom of the building's mysterious reputation. The location used to be home to a mansion, she discovers. Now it's filled with everyone from an eccentric art collector (Kristin Griffith) to a smiling charmer (Evan Jonigkeit) with whom Melody feels a seemingly instantaneous connection. It's also, however, filled with strange noises and a sixth floor she's warned to stay away from by a maintenance man who clearly means business. She doesn't listen, of course.
Archive 81 convincingly puts viewers in the position to understand how both Dan and Melody could find themselves stuck in dangerous situations from which they realize they might not escape but press on anyway. A puzzle that becomes more intriguing with the revelation of each new piece, it's the sort of show for which the "Next Episode" button was designed. Its protagonists have to know what happens next, and the feeling becomes infectious.
Stylishly made by a directorial team that includes Haifaa al-Mansour (Wadjda), Rebecca Thomas (Stranger Things), and the duo of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (Spring), it's consistently unsettling, whether exploring Dan's isolation and its effects on his mental state — an early scene in which he watches the Andrei Tarkovsky science fiction classic Solaris is both a clue to what's to come and a nod to an influence — or Melody's mounting unease as she realizes she's surrounded by people who may not be what they seem. The series gets extra points for its innovative mixing of media, bringing in everything from film footage to a VHS recording of a public access movie review show to scenes shot on a toy video camera from the 1980s. It's seemingly as in love with antiquated ways of recording the world as Dan is.
As a piece of storytelling, however, Archive 81 suffers from the mid-season sag that plagues so many shows. The brisk, tense, efficiently told first episode gives way to later installments filled with padded-out incidents, red herrings, and dead ends. Anyone hooked by the beginning won't be let down by the end, and the mood of unflagging dread helps keep the suspense high even when the story hits a lull. Just be prepared for some narrative dry stretches along the way, particularly in the 1994 timeline, in which many of the building's secrets will likely become clear to viewers long before Melody figures them out. By then it will be too late to escape anyway. Occasional pacing issues and all, it's a mystery that demands to be followed down whatever dangerous path it takes.
Premieres: Friday, Jan. 14 on Netflix
Who's in it: Mamoudou Athie, Dina Shihabi
Who's behind it: Rebecca Sonnenshine (The Boys)
For fans of: Unsettling mysteries, mixed-media storytelling
How many episodes we watched: 8 (full first season)