Ready Player One posited a dystopian future in which people go to a virtual reality Oasis in search of some escape from their hellish real lives, finding solace in nostalgia and uninhibited potential. Its characters would rather fight to preserve this escapism than fight to, say, change their future. Kiss Me First asks if we really need a full-blown dystopia to get to this point. Would a handful of personal dystopias be enough?
A dark, MatrixmeetsWestworldmeetsSims credits sequence does little to prepare us for the six-episode show’s smooth and cartoonish VR Chat, set in the strangely animated world of Agora. This is the game that Leila (relative newcomer Tallulah Haddon) is obsessed with. When her mom dies, that obsession turns into the one thing she has to hold onto. Some people drink; she punches the hell out of her online friends.
The segments inside the game are surprisingly fine and not entirely off-putting, if you don’t know much about video games. (Others will have fun poking holes in its ludicrous design and the embarrassing midseason montage explaining it.) That may sound harsh, but it’s the price you pay when you mix media so thoroughly. Video game adaptation is hard enough without marrying it to soapy teen drama. I know a TV series’ animation budget isn’t going to be flush enough for spectacle, but the best motion-captured RPGs are just now getting to the point where characters’ smiles don’t skeeve players out. Ready Player One needed every bit of Steven Spielberg and Industrial Light & Magic to make its avatars watchable. What I’m saying is, Agora never had a chance.
Outside the game, Haddon is as blank as one might expect of someone whose mother just died, but not much else when other emotions start to emerge from behind the static of loss. Except horny—these teens are nothing if not horny and sad, and thus like all teens online. And the correspondences with real life don’t end there.
Beyond a virtual wall that just happens to break at her touch, Leila finds Red Pill, an organization with the name of a Matrix metaphor for breaking through illusions to find truth. (One that has been co-opted in real life by the most toxic sections of the internet.) This is a gang of Agora nerds that wear illegal “sense bands” so that if they feel in the game, they feel in real life—even if, say, they blow up on a motorcycle. Just a few tweaks away from the Gamer series we deserved, it’s a mini piece of Black Mirror silliness inside an already silly metaphor, which could be either the fault of creator and writer Bryan Elsley (who co-created Skins) or Lottie Moggach, the author of the novel on which Kiss Me First is based.
Red Pill’s victim complex, gaslighting, and negging indoctrination/recruitment is, like the Internet communities that follow its methodology, obviously leading up to more extreme asks of its members. These are “people with stuff,” all at the beck and call of its seemingly omnipotent leader, Adrian (Matthew Beard). Calumny (George Jovanovic), for example, comes from an abusive home with parental brawls he hears anytime he’s not wearing his headset. Adrian encourages him to kill himself. The other members of Red Pill are similarly afflicted—so similar, in fact, that the writing’s almost lazy. A techy dude preying on vulnerable youths who’ve turned to some escapism? It’s not hard to see how things are about to go south for Leila.
This grows even clearer when Leila’s game experiences become tangible. While in Agora, Leila meets Tess (Simona Brown, who spends most of her time putting clothes on or taking them off), who then meets her in real life thanks to the hackery of Adrian. She’s an outgoing, free-spirited club dancer who Leila’s taken with, then impersonates through VR. Which is a few levels of weird, considering the game provides access to race-swapped identity theft. But, like many of the more serious issues at hand in Kiss Me First, this is never engaged with; it’s just another potentially interesting/problematic interaction with technology discarded in favor of sensationalist plotting and heartrate-lowering direction.
The series takes two episodes to get to a premise, and even then it’s not quite a plot—it’s more, “things are a little shifty and hung together by conveniences and the narrative glue of poorly-explained technology.” Yet, with all the shaggy hangouts and toggling between animation and live action, it still attempts to convince its audience that it’s a thrilling mystery rather than a piece of what-if sci-fi. It’s all very silly—and yet too stereotypical to excite in its badness.
Yes, being a teen is hard. But the series’ misplaced morbidity means everybody has a tragic home life, and instead of turning to actual drugs, they turn to the worst drug of them all: video games. Ooga booga. Taking issue with the fear-mongering is a tricky situation when incels and other variously pathetic and hateful groups absorb society’s disillusioned upper-middle class, but Kiss Me First is such a lazy take on an easy, stationary target that its shot drifts right overhead. The adults all make the same detached, disappointed face while they monotonously bemoan the new generation as those tragic youths dance, play games, or get sucked into shadowy plots. It’s a tonal and hormonal nightmare. The worst part of it is that I think I liked the teens better in these types of stories when they just did too many drugs.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.