By Isaac Feldberg
June 29, 2018 at 09:30 PM EDT
Credit: Pete Dadds/Channel 4/Netflix

With its secondary setting of Azana — a bucolic virtual reality otherworld awash in verdant forests, grand waterfalls, and comely avatars content to revel in both — Netflix’s Kiss Me First invites comparison to Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg’s over-the-top sci-fi spectacle that doubled as a sugary nostalgia trip back through the pop culture of yesteryear. But this British import, which aired across the pond back in April, is actually much more closely coded to Black Mirror.

In Mirror, technology like VR is often posited as something of a great enabler, setting up foolish mortals like ourselves to seal our fates in any number of nightmarish ways, be it savagely eroding our loved ones’ rights to privacy, trapping one another inside digital prisons for personal gain, or… inventing killer robot-dogs that then murder everyone on Earth (still wondering why no one second-guessed that one at some point throughout the patent process).

Based on a book by Lottie Moggach and co-created by Skins‘ Bryan Eisley, Kiss Me First — at least in the early going — shares Black Mirror‘s baleful view of electronics, specifically its overarching anxiety that our tech’s ostensible function as a universal connector is, in practice, serving to isolate and imprison (sometimes literally) its most fervent users, all the while quietly dismantling their senses of self.

Or, in Kiss Me First‘s case, not so quietly.

For protagonist Leila (Tallulah Haddon, wonderfully understated), Azana represents a rare opportunity to block out the traumas of the real world, where her long-ailing mother has just died and left her utterly alone in a funereal London district. In the game, as warrior Shadowfax, Leila can explore an open-world paradise, raiding enemy camps, beating the pixelated pulp out of her uncanny-valley opponents, and going on missions with teammates who know nothing of her recent troubles (nor she of theirs). As coping mechanisms go, it’ll do, she thinks — until she spots a a mysterious woman watching her in the game.

Before long, she’s been pulled aside by said woman, codenamed Mania (Simona Brown, a hypnotic standout), who sneaks her into a hidden patch of Azana so she can meet the ghosts in the machine. Dubbed “Red Pill” — a way too-on-the-nose Matrix reference that harbors a different and wholly unaddressed meaning post-Gamergate — they’re more or less the personality cultists of Azana, a group of misfits led by Adrian (Matthew Beard), a silver-tongued, sweater-wearing, openly sinister figure who promises his followers a kind of VR-based transcendence. Together, they lounge, chat, bat virtual eyelids at one another, and form a kind of community that’s far safer than any the Red Pillers (who include an abused foster kid, a troubled veteran, and other similarly damaged individuals) belong to offline.

Adrian has rigged up illegal neckbands that allow the group members to feel legitimate pain (and pleasure) while playing. No viewers will be leveled up for guessing this doesn’t bode well for either Leila, nursing plenty of psychological wounds, or Mania, who in the real world goes by Tess. When they log off and meet up, Leila is immediately drawn to Tess, who’s seemingly bipolar and definitely self-medicating with Azana as her real life crumbles. Leila’s being seduced, but knowingly so; early on, the two go out dancing and take blue pills in the wet, rolling heat of a packed club (subtle, this series is not). But as she falls in with Red Pill, Leila becomes suspicious that Adrian is playing a different game, that his silken suggestions are pushing the members toward destructive decisions in the real world.

Kiss Me First‘s early episodes hint at this underlying darkness while primarily exploring the fledgling, quite rocky relationship that develops between Tess and Leila; for a while, it smacks of an admittedly less optimistic version of Mirror‘s “San Junipero,” these two repressed young women finding a much-needed release in one another that’s terabytes more intoxicating that anything Azana could render. But somewhere around the fourth hour of its 6-episode first season, the show becomes something markedly different and far less interesting: a tech-thriller overflowing with bugs it can’t patch. As impressively as Azana’s expanses are conceived and executed (especially given the small-screen budget), none of Kiss Me First‘s digital escapism can match the more natural thrill of watching its two leads find in one another a safe haven that might be the real deal. C+