If you’re a fan of TV shows that require a lot of work, 1899 is for you. The new series, a German-produced word-of-mouth hit that features 11 different languages, is easily the most complex series out there right now. It follows migrants aboard an ocean liner who come across an alarming discovery while on the high seas: another ship that went missing days before. So far, so simple.
It’s when a few of these characters decide to explore the boat, though, that things take a mind-bending turn. Let’s just say, watching with a pen and notepad close at hand is advised. It’s a show designed to confound and, for those with a predilection for mystery layered upon mystery, it will lure you in hook, line and sinker. But there’s just one problem: the show is on Netflix.
In fairness, the streaming service was very kind to Dark, the previous show released by 1899’s creators, Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese. That is, if being “kind” constitutes letting a show run its natural course. German-language series Dark lasted for three seasons, released from 2017 to 2020, and, fortunately for Odar and Friese, it became an international smash.
The show began life as a straightforward family drama about a missing kid and evolved into a sprawling time-loop saga that earned its title as “the most complex show on TV”. In short: exactly my kind of show. Those that persevered were rewarded – there’s a strong case for it being Netflix’s greatest show to date – and if it had been cancelled before reaching its conclusion, it would have been a tragedy of the streaming age. I’m concerned 1899 might not avoid that fate.
1899 is not instantly terrific like Dark – but it gets there. Similar themes are present and correct: an ensemble of ordinary characters plunged into an extraordinary situation – hello! An enigmatic contraption with the ability to bend space and time – check! Underground passageways that lead to different dimensions – you bet! A creepy overlord (Anton Lesser) seemingly controlling events at his will – there he is! But it’s less forthcoming with its raison d’être. Dark impressively ensnared non-science-fiction viewers by presenting an (initially) easy-to-follow plot in a contemporary setting; while as the title suggests, 1899 is a period piece filled with characters whose motives aren’t clearly defined, and it’s impenetrable for at least seven of its eight episodes. This is cause for worry. TV viewers generally love a laidback watch and tend to switch off at the merest hint of a challenge, but 1899 actively puts people through their paces, albeit with an invigorating confidence.
Speaking to IndieWire, Odar and Friese admitted that they have no plans to reveal many answers until a third and final season – but that’s if enough people watch the series. If 1899 is not deemed a big enough hit for the streamer, you can bet Netflix will swing that axe.
Look at The OA, a cerebral show whose ambitious season two ending threw the scope wide open, only to be cancelled five months later. More recently, vampire series First Kill found itself inexplicably culled despite the fact it topped the charts in several countries. Despite rumblings to the contrary, Mindhunter, the costly David Fincher-produced crime drama, looks as if it will be left hanging in limbo, too.
Not helping 1899’s cause is the fact that it’s the most-expensive German-produced series of all time, with Netflix paying €48m of its €60m budget. In other words, it needs to be topping Netflix’s Top 10 lists around the world – at the time of writing, 1899 is trailing the most recent season of The Crown in both the UK and US, and is number one in just 25 out of 93 territories.
While many would flock to a second season – just try to stay away after the finale’s enthrallingly baffling ending – 1899’s status as a “mystery box” show will infuriate many (mystery box is a phrase applied to shows posing many questions with a gradual reveal of answers. See: Lost, Undone, Westworld – RIP). And this could lead to consternation among Netflix bosses.
The streaming age can be glorious; shows that would never have seen the light of day are being created thanks to Netflix, Apple TV+, Disney+ and Prime Video. However, it’s also a fickle business. With 1899, Odar and Friese have presented a jigsaw for viewers to decipher. But if it doesn’t tick the business boxes, viewers will be left with an incomplete puzzle. Let’s hope, then, that 1899 sails to victory.