Lost in the Reel’s video review of Archive 81.

When I heard James Wan was producing a new Netflix show revolving around cults… I didn’t need to hear anything more. I was already sold. And even though Wan doesn’t write or direct any of the eight episodes that comprise season one of Archive 81, you can still feel his stamp on the series. Based upon a popular podcast of the same name that is now in its third season… this new horror show has all of the right elements to create something unique yet is unfortunately drowned in a sea of cheese. That doesn’t mean that it’s not an enjoyable watch; it’s just a considerably flawed one.


The show follows a young man named Dan (Mamadou Athie), who spends his time hiding away from the world, restoring film, and trying to recover from a mental breakdown after a bad break-up. His best friend (Matt McGorry) is an eccentric podcaster who revels in the strange and supernatural; and is constantly attempting to get Dan to open up a little bit and take some chances in life. So when a CEO of a shady corporation (Martin Donovan) seeks out Dan to restore an archive of damaged tapes, he decides that this might be the step in the right direction. 

He is transported to an isolated compound, where he slowly starts to fix these old tapes… but, in the process, realizes that the filmmaker (Dina Shihabi) who produced them becomes unwittingly entangled in a dangerous conspiracy. The series switches back and forth in time as we witness Melody, the filmmaker in the 90’s, uncovering the secrets of this apartment she lives in and its seedy inhabitants, as well as Dan going deeper down the rabbit hole of the archive and completely unraveling.

Let’s start by saying that I had a heck of a time trying to get into this show at first. The first few episodes dragged on without any real sense of purpose or direction. I kept finding myself struggling to turn it on, and once I got a couple of minutes in, I would lose interest or fall asleep. In this day and age, when there is so much content being released weekly, a series needs to hook you from the very beginning to keep its audience. I thought Archive 81 failed at doing this… especially when this content is my bread and butter.


Luckily, about halfway into episode three, Archive 81 finally reveals some of its secrets and intentions. Once I had an inkling of an idea about what the show’s mysteries would entail, I started slowly inching closer to the edge of my seat. Then once the final two episodes hit, I was fully invested in getting to the bottom of what was happening here. There is A WHOLE LOT going on here, especially for a show that took so long to get started. 

Without giving too much away, Archive 81 is filled to the brim with witches and demons, sacrifices and time travel, comets and pagan idols, psychics and mental patients… there are so many ideas here that it can become a little overwhelming. You can tell that the series is based upon a podcast for that very fact. While throwing everything and the kitchen sink into a podcast might have worked, it’s tough to translate all of that into something understandable for the screen. The showrunners certainly try their darndest, but it sadly doesn’t always work. This is most scathingly noticeable when the show is constantly throwing exposition at the audience to make 100% sure that they are all caught up with the lunacy that is going on. 


However, my biggest qualm with Archive 81 isn’t the sheer amount of big ideas. It comes down to its characters and the actors playing them. The show just does not contain a single character that I cared about. We get tragic backstories for our leads, which explains why they are pursuing what they are… But, the writing never allows you to “feel” for them or with them. We get side characters who are far more interesting than our leads, but they continuously get forgotten about and then reappear out of nowhere… making it hard for you to connect with them. Lastly, the villain they have created here in our diabolical CEO is so stereotypical and lacks any substance. His reasoning behind his whole plot is incredibly ham-fisted.

That leads me to the acting in Archive 81, which leaves much to be desired. I’m usually really forgiving when it comes to performances, as long as they are competent, but I was immediately taken out of the show in episode one by the acting. I have never seen lead actor Mamadou Athie in anything before, but the thespian lacks any screen presence or charisma. Every line is uttered so subduedly with little to no expression, leaving a performance that flatlines on nearly all accounts. 

 I was relieved when I realized the show would often jump back in time with another co-lead to offset Athie’s screen time, hopefully, but unfortunately, actress Dina Shihabi doesn’t fare much better. The rest of the supporting cast is fine, overshadowing the two leads at every turn… but, there are moments of “Wicker Man”-level overacting here, as well, that left me snickering on multiple occasions. I don’t necessarily blame the actors entirely, though… the writing can be incredulous at times, and the direction (from talented filmmakers like Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson, Rebecca Thomas, and Haifaa Al-Monsour) can feel very staged rather than organic. So, these issues lie in multiple departments of Archive 81.


Now that I have gotten many negatives out of the way, I want to discuss what I liked about this show. Because even though, as I said before, it is considerably flawed… There is a lot to savor here for genre fans. Archive 81 is like a mystery box. It was complicated to open at first, but there was so much to unlock here once it was. The showrunners have created a mythology that makes it feel like anything is possible. Thus you have no idea what is going to happen next. The twists and turns keep coming at such a rapid pace that there is not much time to breathe before another reveal is set into motion.


And the horror and supernatural elements deliver. I was screaming and jumping one moment and then got goosebumps and chills the next. Though I wouldn’t say it’s the scariest show I have ever seen (the cheese-factor gets in the way of allowing it to have that distinction), Archive 81 most certainly kept me up at night. It has that eerie vibe that slowly creeps up on you until it unleashes its wrath. Don’t expect Saw levels of violence, although one scene was so horrifyingly gory; I couldn’t bear to keep watching.

When episode 8 came to a close, I had a lot of mixed feelings about Archive 81. I couldn’t help but wish that the showrunners had decided to make it a limited series vs. an ongoing one. While I had a fun time with this mystery box of horrors… I’m not sure if I will have the urge to come back for a second season. Because while all of the ideas were there and they were solid, I never connected with the characters, which is what ultimately brings me coming back for more when it comes to TV. However, if Archive 81 decides to go the anthology route, I will be far more intrigued to return.

Archive 81 Premieres on Netflix Friday, January 14th, 2022.

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