This review contains spoilers.
1.1 She Did Something
Making a timely TV show is hard. Whereas the creators might be aiming for of-the-moment discussion and situations the audience can directly relate to, these stories are more often than not rendered moot by the ever-changing news cycle before they even hit the screen, and timely quickly becomes cringe-worthy.
One of a few smart decisions, Kiss Me First, Channel 4’s new offering from Skins co-creator Bryan Elsley, is to set its story in a future within reaching distance. Post-apocalyptic landscapes have a way of distancing an audience, but here is a reality in which dodgy flatmates, internet cafes and life’s mundane intricacies still exist. Leila, our heroine, isn’t ‘just like us’, but maybe she’s just like that girl you’ve seen at the bus stop.
We meet Leila immediately after the death of her mother, who she had been caring for up until that point. Now alone and struggling for money, she feeds her addiction to online game/social network/virtual reality Azana but renting out her mum’s old room and getting a cash-in-hand cleaning job. Her life is pretty dour, and this makes her need for the animated world of Azana entirely understandable.
Though Leila mostly uses the platform to get out her frustrations with pain-free combat between friends, she soon notices that someone – Mania/Tess – is watching her. Curiosity eventually leads her to an exclusive group of misfits who dub themselves ‘Red Pill’ (yes, that’s the same Matrix reference used by MRA-groups on Reddit), and Tess later shows up to befriend Leila in real life.
Much of the show’s depiction of technology is as an escape for those who need it. Leila is clearly detached and enveloped in fresh grief, and the only actions she takes are to give her money for more Azana credits. Meanwhile, Tess appears open and confident, but underneath the facade there’s clearly a deep sadness and potential trauma in her past.
It’s in many ways a classic set-up, not so different from the dynamic of Sugar Rush if you remove the headsets and sense bands. And I mean that in every way – even if the show never acknowledges it, Tess and Leila’s instant connection feels more than platonic. Tess’s pursuit of Leila plays out with all the beats of a seduction, and the club scene is filled with images of everyone kissing everyone. When you get into the whole business of one pretending to be the other inside Azana, it gets really loopy.
The role of virtual reality to provide escape may seem obvious, but even our own everyday tech is used to convey a similar effect. The moment in which Leila relives a memory of her mother through her phone, mouthing along with her past self, is both familiar and jarring, and helps to bridge the gap between present and future. In this world, how far away would Leila be from actually entering that memory?
The real-world stuff in Kiss Me First is all excellent, and lead actresses Tallulah Haddon and Simona Brown are the primary reason. Their chemistry helps, but there’s an honesty to them that I feel like young audiences especially will take to.
As for Azana, the graphics are honestly as good as they need to be, impressive in their detail but not immune to the old uncanny valley problem. When you’re trying to capture action this way it’s fine (the opening sequence featuring Leila’s avatar flying over Azana looks great), it’s when the show is trying to convey emotion in the virtual world that things get tricky.
But this first episode does a great job of setting up both the mystery and the relationships that will carry viewers through the series, and it’s done with more heart and care than 90% of shows bother with. It’s timely, yes, but also rooted in more universal elements like friendship and loss.
The themes and ideas Kiss Me First is going for are ambitious indeed, and I’m inclined to think it won’t manage to avoid all of the stumbling blocks. But on the other hand I can’t think of a better show to premiere in this era of technological anxiety, nostalgia for non-existent worlds and questions of identity, and it’s great to see such an unapologetically female-led and youth-targeted show come out of Channel 4.