Archive 81’s release came up mostly under the radar, which surprisingly plays to the series well. The show explores the pursuit of truth for its thematic through-line and its horror and suspense roots highlight the obstacles in the plights of Melody (Dina Shihabi) and Dan (Mamoudou Athie), the truth-seeking protagonists of this story.
The premise follows Dan as he’s hired to restore a collection of tapes from a filmmaker investigating a cult years before. Archive 81 is based on a podcast of the same name, a fictional found footage horror podcast about ritual, stories, and sound. Archive 81, the Netflix series and the podcast, are not the only recent pieces of media to dive into the natural horror elements of video archiving—last year, both Censor and Broadcast Signal Intrusion premiered at festivals, and were generally well-received. Now, it’s Netflix’s turn in the genre.
Anybody who binged this story this opening weekend is truly blessed, as Archive 81 works best without spoilers or out-of-narrative clues. There’s a reason this isn’t the only review that will reference it as a slow burn. Archive 81 needs the time a series provides to slowly reel you in, to get excited about discoveries, to feel the interpersonal stakes, and to give Matt McGorry as much screen time as possible.
Archive 81 definitely has the vibe of a Netflix show—the overall suspenseful mystery aesthetic, as well a familiar structure. You won’t forget which streaming service to open up when resuming your watch. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even though it has the structure and set-up that reminds you of past series, this show is a lot creepier, mostly due to the score and singing. The hums of the residents of the Visser Building make a unique soundtrack that tracks through the different timelines this series pursues.
The way Dan uncovers the workings of the occult through his video restoration also helps set the horror tone of the show secondary to the audio effects. We won’t spoil the specifics of how this plays out, but while executed well, the video aspect of the demon-God antagonist, Kaelego, isn’t exactly unique. Archive 81 is eerie enough to only watch in certain environments if you’re easy to scare. If you have LED lights, don’t set the color to red.
However, there are a lot more reasons to love this show other than genre-specific ones. The small cast of main characters all have interesting relationships with each other, save for Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan), a means to an end. Evan Jonigkeit also plays a truly creepy conduit for Kaelego, but despite the tone and material in this show, it’s almost impossible not to see the other celebrities he has a strong likeness with.
Family is a big motivator in Archive 81, from Dan trying to figure out if his father was someone who helped people or took advantage of vulnerable ones, and Melody’s heartbreak over her mother. At the same time, Melody also has a very maternal instinct towards Jess (Ariana Neal), who ended up being one of the last components in Dan’s plan to rescue her in the present timeline.
You’d think that Dan would fall in love with Melody by the end of all of this, but at least for now, Archive 81 makes the smart choice to avoid an obvious romance. This actually makes both of the lead characters stronger for it and leaves room for other interesting relationships. The most heartfelt dynamic ends up being Dan and his friend, Mark Higgins (Matt McGorry), who helps Dan figure out details about the Visser while he’s disconnected and restoring Melody’s tapes.
One of the most emotionally satisfying moments comes from the two in the finale. But let’s not leave out the girls either—Melody and Annabelle (Julia Chan) also help anchor the 1994 timeline, with the latter also helping to balance out the otherwise serious tone in a similar way that Mark does as well.
Archive 81 is well balanced, with satisfying emotional arcs and horror/mystery elements for the viewer to pour over as the truth to the Visser Apartments is finally revealed. This show is a great weekend binge for fans of true crime, mystery, and anything haunting or spooky. A smorgasbord of fun elements that will leave you wanting more, Archive 81 knows exactly the right balance, which is an end result that many shows cannot achieve.
Archive 81 is now streaming on Netflix.