Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Archive 81’ On Netflix, Where An Archivist Tries To Help Solve A 28-Year-Old Mystery In Unusual Ways

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There has been a trend of having podcasts — mostly of the scripted, fictional variety — made into streaming series. There’s a good reason: Like radio plays of old, fictional podcasts usually tell stories that take advantage of the audio-only medium. But translating the audio-only story to something visual is tricky. Netflix’s Archive 81 is based on a popular scripted podcast that involves two timelines and some supernatural goings on. Does the adaptation work?

ARCHIVE 81: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?

Opening Shot: A fuzzy shot from an old videotape of a young woman running through a stairwell, screaming “Can you hear me, Jeff?”


The Gist: Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie) is an expert archivist that works for the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. His specialty is taking videotape that’s been either damaged or has deteriorated due to adverse storing conditions and retrieving what’s been recorded on them. His current project is trying to recover a pre-Twilight Zone TV series that was sitting in someone’s basement for decades.

But his boss gives him a project from a “big donor” for him to work on; it’s a Hi8 tape that was damaged in a fire. When he restores the tape, he sees two young women in an apartment. One of them, Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi) is about to move into an apartment building called The Visser. Her goal is to talk to the residents there for her anthropology dissertation. Dan looks up the Visser; it burned down in 1994, leaving 13 people missing.

He does such a good job on the tape, he’s called to the offices of the mysterious client, Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan) at a company called LMG. Donovan wants him to restore the rest of the tapes in their possession. He’ll have to do it at a bunker in the Catskills and has to keep the contents top secret. The pay is $100,000. When Virgil mentions that he knows that Dan’s family died in a fire when he was a kid, Dan freaks out over the fact that he knows something that isn’t public knowledge.

But he sees something in the footage that makes him curious. He saw his dog on a photo on the video he restored. He tells his friend Mark Higgins (Matt McGorry), who hosts a supernatural podcast, that he has to see the connection. Mark tells him he’s seeing things that aren’t there.

Dan goes to the research facility, and he starts restoring the tapes. This is when we switch perspectives to Melody’s, moving into the Visser earlier in 1994 and trying to find someone — anyone — who will talk to her. The super tells her to avoid the sixth floor. She finally comes across Jess (Ariana Neal), a girl who is basically a gopher for everyone in the building.

While she interviews Jess, though, the girl has some sort of seizure. While watching that footage, Dan sees some sort of demonic image on the screen that sends him scrambling to find cell coverage to call Mark about what he saw. He still can’t get any info on Melody, either; it’s as if she doesn’t exist. The next footage he sees is of Melody telling the camera that someone took Jess.

Julia Chan as Anabelle Cho in Archive 81
Photo: Netflix

What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Strangely enough, the multiple timelines in Archive 81 remind us of Showtime’s recent hit Yellowjackets, but the creepy factor in Archive 81 is definitely different.


Our Take: Archive 81, created by Rebecca Sonnenshine and written by Paul Harris Boardman, is based on a fictional podcast of the same name. They have somehow found a way to take a show that involves a man alone in the Catskills looking at decades-old videotape into a thriller that actually makes some sense. As Dan goes through the archive, he’s going to have more questions about what happened to the Visser in general and Melody in particular.

In the first episode, we’re still not quite sure what Melody has stumbled upon while doing her dissertation, but from the show’s description we do know that she runs afoul of a dangerous cult that’s in the Visser. What we’re wondering about is if and how the two timelines will blur together and how long that will take. At a certain point, we’re going to tire of watching Dan watching a monitor and then running into the woods when he finds something strange.

We do know that Dan’s life has been haunted by the fire that took his family, and that there isn’t a small connection between the two fires. And Athie is excellent at showing that there’s a river of pain running underneath his mostly stoic manner. But we were definitely more intrigued with the 1994 timeline, showing Melody’s perspective. Shihabi’s role is more dynamic than Athie’s, just by the nature of what the two of them are being asked to do in the early going, and we were far more interested in what she was exploring than what was going on with Dan.


But we suspect that will change as the series goes along. And any show that makes being a videotape restorer and archivist at least a little bit interesting deserves time to let its story unfold.

Sex and Skin: None.

Parting Shot: Dan looks at the footage of Melody looking for help because of Jess’s disappearance, and sees a familiar face: His late father Steven (Charlie Hudson III). Then we pan out from that scene and see that room and every other room on a massive monitor, being watched by Virgil.



Sleeper Star: Matt McGorry is barely recognizable as Mark, but he’s a good link to the outside world for Dan, and he makes the most of the screen time he gets.

Most Pilot-y Line: None we could find.

Our Call: STREAM IT. We’re still wondering if Archive 81 can effectively put its timelines together into a coherent thriller. But it’s off to a promising start, due to good performances from both Athie and Shihabi.


Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.

https://decider.com/2022/01/14/archive-81-netflix-review/