I’ve always wondered at what point the cast and crew of a TV show know it’s a total disaster. When do you mentally throw in the towel and just collect the paycheck, hoping that you can unlink the series from your IMDB account? These questions were at the forefront of my mind while watching seven horrendously ill-conceived episodes of Netflix’s The I-Land, a show that wouldn’t have lasted more than one episode in a traditional broadcast model, but thanks to binge culture and the ability to hide new content, was incredibly allowed to be made and released.
From the start, The I-Land looks like a ripoff of better series. Ten strangers wake up on an island in weirdly similar clothing and a few props, not sure how they got there or even who they are. But since they’re all young and beautiful, their first instinct is not to search for food or water but to strip off and go swimming, where one of them is immediately eaten by a shark. The point of the island is something tied to redemption, and the question of whether people can work together to find a way off or just resort to going full Lord of the Flies. Lost, of course, did this first and indescribably better, but there are also shades of Westworld, Minority Report, Survivor, and The Hunger Games. In many ways, it’s like that meme of “I made a computer watch these things and this is what it thinks a script is.”
However improbably, the series was created not by a computer, but by Anthony Salter and written/showrun by Neil LaBute. It’s also an example of a series where absolutely nothing connects, so it’s hard to tell where things went the most wrong (the acting? writing? directing?) But with lines like “there was never supposed to be a cannibal!” or “ain’t it cool we don’t even need birth control in here?” or the piece de resistance, “there’s no rape here, just sex or no sex,” one cannot help but give a hard look to Mssr. LaBute.
The series has a few recognizable names in its lead roles, including Kate Bosworth, Alex Pettyfer, and Natalie Martinez (whose character Chase is something of a protagonist), but all of them are acting in totally different shows, sometimes within the same scene. All of the characters are hostile, but what choice do you have when you’re being told things like “when you remember who you are, you’re gonna want to kill yourselves! Hehe!” In what feels like a fourth wall-breaking moment, another character later announces, “this is probably a fucking shitshow in your head right now, how could it not be?” He’s not wrong.
I’m going to get into spoilers here, so if for some reason you want to go into this show without knowing anything, turn back now. But I can safely say that knowing more about it will neither help nor hinder your experience. It simply is.
The I-Land is built as a Mystery Box TV series, where you have amnesiacs gathered in a weird, hostile place that seems rigged. That’s something they start to understand pretty quickly, but after a few very random clues in the first two episodes, the show just gives up and explains everything to viewers in the third.
So yes, this is a simulation, and Chase wakes up from it somehow. But no worries, as the doctors, nurses, academics, and even the warden of the jail where this is all happening just decide to sit her down and have an episode-long session of exposition about it. None of it connects, including why Chase is in a totally separate room from her island counterparts who are suspended in goo (she is never in the goo, but she is held down by “magnets”). The answers to details like these are lost, which is a shame because the show makes sure that everything else it wants you to know is spelled it out in incredibly blunt terms, killing all possible mystery. Nothing adds up, though. The more we’re told, the more questions are raised. But not good, mystery-building questions. Questions like, as I wrote in my notes, “is this show a spoof (??)”
You might ask why I continued to watch, but truly how could I stop? The episodes are also not particularly long (running between 30 and 40 minutes), so it makes for an fairly easy binge. Plus, the show goes from entertainingly bad to tragically boring to hilariously insane. And obviously, I had to know how it all ended.
So let’s skip to the finale because readers, I cannot wait to share with you the final twist. First: as is explained at length in the convoluted finale, this simulation was created to test whether or not death row inmates could find redemption in a nature-vs-nurture situation. But from the start things were completely compromised, and the fact that someone says out loud “if you die in the game you die in real life!” is just incredible on so many levels. There are two rogue marshals who show up and call themselves Bonnie and Clyde and end up randomly killing some of the islanders because “justice is being served,” but their presence is never really explained well, and nothing they do is ever resolved. There is also the aforementioned cannibal, who we never see, but there’s a little Titus Andronicus moment thrown in for fun. Basically, imagine the movie Serenity, then have it make 200% less sense.
I should also mention that there are several hilarious but also upsettingly bad attempts to make a variety of “statements” through the behavior of the islanders and the revelations of their past misdeeds, and I agreed with one of the academics when she says, without provocation, “between us girls, I’ve had as much as I can take of this hateful shit.” There is plenty of it, too. The warden loves calling women bitches over and over and over again, there’s a horrendously bad rape storyline that should be a criminal offense that it was ever written, and when one character says “I’m not crazy!” another one earnestly replies, “those kinds of judgmental words aren’t helping anything.” It will make your head spin.
Anyway, islanders are killing each other or being killed, but it doesn’t really matter because Chase wakes up miraculously a second time and is exonerated of her crime because another islander (who, turns out, was her husband) admitted that he set her up, which is lucky for her. But then the academics and everyone involved do a little post-mort with her, as the only survivor, that’s very casual, like she hasn’t been fighting for her life for days in a simulation that is also somehow real, or like she hasn’t had her memory wiped, or that she didn’t just find out this stranger was actually her husband who also killed her mother and set her up in the span of about two minutes. At one point, an academic asks her if she figured out what one of the only clues on the island, the number 39, had meant. He then, with smug excitement, tells her that’s the number of steps from the cell block to the electric chair. The electric chair! I can’t make this up.
But then here’s the icing on the cake: The reason why there are so many death row inmates is because, in fact, it’s 25 years into the future and climate change has made Texas into Florida and more people are committing crimes (?) “as the water takes the land.” They’ve run the simulation hoping that people can still be good (even though some people were just killed at random). Then they just tell Chase she’s free to head out into what is now, suddenly, an apocalyptic wasteland … except just before they drop the final bomb on her, they reveal that she’s actually an old woman. They just made everyone young and hot on the island because—and this is a direct quote—“it’s … just the way we worked out the simulation.”
(Oh and also, though everyone was called by their last names the entire time, Bosworth’s KC is called KC because that stands for “killing children.” Yes, the people who ran this study with government grants and created this elaborate simulation resorted to naming one of the islanders by her prison nickname. A prisoner who was the victim of domestic abuse so killed her children and then stabbed herself in front of her husband, mind you. Bosworth is really committed emotionally to this, but I was not. So much for redemption. You have to love it!)
So anyway, the world is on fire but worse still, you are old. “I am tired of playing by these rules that don’t make any sense!” Chase exclaims, and no truer words have ever been spoken. Nothing about The I-Land makes sense, and if you want to save yourself the trouble of all seven episodes but still want the fun, just watch the first, third, and final installments. You’ll think that you’ve missed stuff in between, but you haven’t. Perhaps The I-Land is the purest form of Netflix’s algorithm creating a series, but it grossly miscalculated with this one. It’s actually an amazing achievement of television in some ways, because it goes so wrong in so many ways that it is nearly breathtaking (the last words are “welcome to One Land”!) I have watched some truly, truly bad series in my day, but few that went off the rails this hard this fast. But man, what a ride. Cannibals, climate change, rogue simulations, for-profit prisons, a game with no rules and no logic … what an embarrassment of riches. Or just an embarrassment. We’ll go with that last one.
The I-Land is currently available to stream on Netflix.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV