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To binge or not to binge: That is the question. Millions assume the answer is “binge!” and that’s that. If a series is any good, the only options are binge-watch or ignore altogether, since life is short and the queue is long. Right?
Wrong. Plenty of extended or limited series work best with a little breathing room between episodes. This brings us to “Archive 81,” an extremely well-acted creeper now streaming on Netflix. It’s an eight-part narrative with a lot of tendrils, adapted from the 2016 horror podcast created by Dan Powell and Marc Sollinger. While it takes its time (too much so in the middle episodes), those in charge of the adaptation invest fully in the key characters. Result: We actually give a damn about their fates.
“Archive 81″ showrunner Rebecca Sonnenshine and company have cast their leads oh, so wisely. Mamoudou Athie plays the taciturn New York City video archivist Dan Turner. Dina Shihabi is Melody Pendras, the haunted graduate student whose 1994-era videotapes comprise an unfinished oral history project on the history and denizens of an Manhattan apartment building known as the Visser, oozing secrets and spirits not of this world.
Given the podcast roots of “Archive 81″ (it spanned three seasons in all), it makes sense to go with actors blessed with fabulous, expressively mellow voices, the kind you want to listen to. Check, and check. Also, Athie and Shihabi excel in close-up. Separated by a generation but increasingly connected, the these two characters and actors spend a lot of time peering through a camera lens or studying grainy, wait-what’s-that footage. Some performers can activate the art of reactive performance better than others. Athie and Shihabi are there for us, with every development.
Hired by a mysterious business titan (Martin Donovan, ever the wizard at the shifty, unexpected … pause), Dan is charged with restoring and digitizing “a recently acquired collection of damaged videotapes.” He’s to complete this project in a remote Catskills compound with no Wi-Fi and weekly deliveries of groceries. The tapes were recovered from the fire that burned the Visser to the ground (how? why?) The tragedy left 13 bodies never recovered (who, exactly?) “Blair Witch” style, albeit five years before “The Blair Witch Project” came out, we watch Melody videotaping her every interaction with the residents, inching closer to disaster.
Right off in “Archive 81,” signs of possible occult activity appear in the form of diabolical stone carvings; muttered portents delivered by the handyman (”stay away from the sixth floor”) and a seizure of unknown origin suffered by Melody’s teenage Visser building neighbor, Jess, played wonderfully by Ariana Neal. Melody’s Brooklyn roommate Annabelle (Julia Chan) moves in with Melody while the project’s underway; in the present-day scenes, Dan has his best friend, albeit long distance, in the form of mystery and paranormal podcast host Mark (Matt McGorry). Soon enough Dan’s nightmares take him into Melody’s world; his waking moments are filled, meanwhile, with suspicions that his employer may be hiding a thing or three.
What doesn’t quite work in “Archive 81″ might’ve been avoided with a dramaturge on the writing team, or whatever the series equivalent might be. (Story editor, I guess.) The first four episodes are pretty delicious; then there’s a bit of a sag, and once we’re clued into the specifics of what Melody’s up against, and Dan, too, there’s not enough screw-tightening and a little too much dog-paddling.
Scene to scene, the writers freely acknowledge their various inspirations, ranging from “Rosemary’s Baby” to “The Ring” (it’s in the trailer, so I’m not blowing any cover). When certain specters finally appear on screen, the visual realization is distressingly ordinary. But other elements of this series are familiar and effective in all the right ways. “Archive 81″ features a fine, bloody seance, one of its rare instances of gore. It’s fun to check out a few of the first-season “Archive 81″ podcast episodes, just to see where and how the basics have been amplified, revised, imagined for the eyes as well as the ears.
Shihabi and Athie, their eyes full of dread and wonder, are reason enough to watch.
3 stars (out of 4)
Running time: 8 episodes, approximately 8 hours
Where to watch: Now streaming on Netflix.