'Kiss Me First': TV Review

Frustrating finale erases five hours of solid development.
6/29/2018

Netflix's new virtual reality drama from the co-creator of 'Skins' starts out as a capable exploration of online identity before falling apart in the end.

Because Black Mirror is one of Netflix's most reliable sources of Emmys and buzz, it's no wonder that one of Netflix's most popular series genres is Shows That Are Kinda Like Elongated Versions of Black Mirror.

There's Black Mirror as a Detective Procedural With a Mind-Boggling Budget (Altered Carbon).

There's Black Mirror Where Everybody Learns Modern Dance (The OA).

There's Black Mirror In High School Where One Girl Has Cancer And People Are Always Laughing in The Background (Alexa & Katie).

Kiss Me First, a co-production with Channel 4 in the U.K., may be the Black Mirror-iest of Netflix's Black Mirror-adjacent programs, tackling that most pervasive of Black Mirror themes: that the technological advancements meant to bring people together and create new senses of community are, in truth, alienating us and estranging us from both other people and from our own identities.

Actually, that's not the theme of Kiss Me First; it's the plot. From Skins co-creator Bryan Eisley, Kiss Me First has no time for pesky matters like subtext as it takes an enticing-but-familiar premise and builds for five occasionally entertaining hours before a finale that's equal parts exasperating and hacky. 

Kiss Me First is the story of Leila (Tallulah Haddon), a young woman who put her life on hold to tend to her ailing mother. When her mother dies, Leila finds herself sad, confused and isolated. Her only solace and connection to the outside world comes inside the virtual reality platform of a pervasive online gaming site called Azana. In the world of Azana, Leila is the warrior Shadowfax. Shadowfax has friends and goes on raids and campaigns. Leila's neighborhood of Rotherhithe is dingy and washed out and dull. Azana is one of those fantasy realms of waterfalls, mountains and verdant canopies, like Pandora from Avatar or every prog rock album cover from the '70s.

Leila thinks her life in Azana is good enough until she begins noticing a woman watching her train and fight. That woman is Mania (Simona Brown) and she's about to slowly lure Leila into a group of outsiders who have found their own space hidden within the code of Azana a place of truth within the fantasy. It's called Red Pill and it seems to be the creation of the manipulative Adrian (the voice of Matthew Beard), who has assembled a cadre of vulnerable and psychologically wounded souls. Red Pill offers them friendship and camaraderie, but Adrian promises them more. The curious Leila seeks out Mania in the real world (where Mania is "Tess") and learns that she's spirited, passionate and extremely damaged. Tess also may be in danger, because bad things are happening to the members of the Red Pill crew and perhaps only Leila, who also happens to be an expert hacker, can stop it.

At this point, movies probably should have taught us that if you're a friendless introvert and you get welcomed into an enclave of strange friends with a charismatic leader hinting at big plans for the future, chances are good that they're vampires or witches or something that you ultimately won't want to be a part of. Leila may not have seen The Lost Boys or The Craft. She also may just be really sad and lonely.

For maybe three episodes, this loose adaptation of Lottie Moggach's novel looks like it's going to be exploring issues of mental health and what happens when fragile people who feel the real world too deeply find themselves in a virtual environment in which every emotion becomes even more heightened. Can VR become a new form of self-medication? Are relationships in a pixelated space as capable of being nurturing or damaging as flesh-and-blood relationships? Especially when it comes to Tess, who is clearly bipolar and has a traumatic backstory, a screwed up semi-abusive relationship and a psychologist inexplicably played by Ben Chaplin, Kiss Me First is initially very interested in honoring her experience and her pain, but it becomes less-so as it goes along. Leila's character journey peaks early. The additional supporting characters in Red Pill all get one-beat arcs at most. This is too bad, because Elsley's Skins pedigree suggests a character-driven series about teens having sex, doing drugs and forming unlikely bonds to combat their feelings of contemporary unease should be what he does best.

The sci-fi premise/backdrop is already plenty thin. The show is set in what is basically an alternative present in which much of the populace has access to this Azana platform, but the platform is unimpacted by advertising and technology has only improved as far as sensory neckbands that enhance pleasure and pain, but are also outlawed. There's really no world-building beyond that. Almost every potentially rich vein the show could explore in this world gets neglected. Want more acknowledgement that the "red pill" concept has gone from Matrix magic to toxic masculinity buzzword? Nah. Want any awareness of specific threats and frustrations for women in this gaming milieu? Nah. The one time the show hints at what it would mean for online identity to deviate from real-world identity, it practically runs screaming from the ramifications.

What the series has going for it, then, is very fine, uncanny valley-teasing animation directed by Kan Muftic, in which avatars of our characters can fly, swim underwater and, mostly, sit on rocks and talk. Both in Azana and in the treatment of the real world, which gives the impression of either a slightly underpopulated world in which people are gaming in their bedrooms or else a series without the budget to pay extras, Kiss Me First is consistently well-shot. The second half of the season, in which characters' psychological states seem to suggest blurring between game and reality that the show isn't prepared to truly explain, produce several moments of really eerie beauty.

The Kiss Me First cast is strong, particularly Haddon, starting as practically invisible and becoming increasingly dynamic and raw as Leila evolves, and Brown, with a wealth of manic episodes to play. Samuel Bottomley and Haruka Abe also have good episodes as other troubled members of the Red Pill. As Leila's new flatmate Jonty, Matthew Aubrey first presented as annoying, but by the end I appreciated that he was the only person bringing any humor to the dour affair.

As it progresses, Kiss Me First becomes a series of strange plot and character holes. There's an early gap in which we would normally see Leila experiencing the positives of Red Pill that's basically skipped, this makes it hard to understand why any character other than Tess feels connected to her or why she feels connected to them or why Adrian has taken this interest in her in the first place. Then there's a much larger gap between the fifth and sixth episodes where the climax you thought the series was building to instead becomes a ridiculous hacking montage followed by a conversation against a CG backdrop followed by a cliffhanger, all introducing plot points that the show thinks make sense, even if they don't much make sense at all. I was perfectly willing to tolerate early gaps as "virtual logic," accepting that we didn't need to see Red Pill in positive motion because we've seen other shows and movies that do the same thing or that Leila's able to magically play detective and travel the country finding people because she's the hero and sometimes heroes can just do things. The gaps in logic from the fourth to fifth episodes were also OK, because the fifth episode is crazy in unexpected ways. The sixth episode I couldn't justify at all.

With a show like Kiss Me First a fun hook is the easy part and viewers deserve to know how the show handles the execution and the ending. Here, the finale left me feeling like major character and narrative steps had been skipped and like the hook for future seasons was completely unearned. That's a hollow, sour feeling.

Cast: Tallulah Haddon, Simona Brown, Matthew Beard, Samuel Bottomley, Haruka Abe, George Jovanovic, Misha Butler, Ben Chaplin
Creator: Bryan Eisley from the book by Lottie Moggach
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)