By Lucy Mangan, The Guardian
The new Prime sci-fi anthology series imagines a future where computers could identify the ideal romantic partner
We are 15 years in the future. Some pesky scientist or computer (or perhaps a pesky combination of the two) has uncovered the existence of the “soul particle” in humans, which means anyone can have a test that will reveal his or her perfect partner. So, what would you do?
The premise of Amazon’s new six-part sci-fi anthology series is not the freshest – the idea of technology cutting through the delicate layers of emotion, connection and meaning with which we humble meatsacks insist on complicating our lives has been a trope of the genre almost as long as there has been sci-fi.
But it is one of the most fun. Because – well, what would you do? What would you do if you were single? What would you do if you were married? What would you do if you were 20, 40, 60? What would you do if you had children? What would you do if you didn’t want to take the test, but your partner did? And all your friends had?
And society had embraced it as the solution to the kind of messy, resource-sapping problems that have beset humanity down the ages? What happens when you hold out for the possibility of perfection in a world mostly getting by with good-enoughs?
The sextet of stories here sets out to look at individual and societal responses to such questions. The first looks at the most obvious setup.
A married couple, Nikki (Succession’s Sarah Snook giving the faultless performance you would expect) and Franklin (Kingsley Ben-Adir, sweetly moving in a part that could easily be dully passive) are happy – or at least were happy enough, until the world starting changing around them and filling with data-matched couples, whose loved-up ecstasy shines so strongly from them that everything else seems to be in shadow.
Nikki wants to take the test, but declines at the last minute, choosing to return to her marriage instead. Alas, while she was processing her doubts, Franklin took the test, met his soulmate and decided to leave the marriage.
This is a gentle but effective probing of the power of temptation and different measures of betrayal. Is it still an affair, is it still ordinary treachery, if you know you are leaving for your soulmate? Discuss this with your partner after watching, with a bottle of wine on the sofa. Nothing can go wrong. Lockdown is the time to thrash these things out, you know?
Some of the other episodes work very similar ground, which is not forgivable with such a fertile premise and so few instalments in the run.
Layover – the tale of two young men bonding as they track down the passport one stole from the other and sold on works as a short, charming romcom – at least gives a twist to the question of whether best should be the enemy of good.
Some, such as The Lovers, in which a university lecturer finds old sins coming back to haunt him, abandon the anthology’s analytical purpose to pose simple “what ifs” – in this case, what if the test were exploited for nefarious purposes, turning the episode into a basic thriller (one in which the ending doesn’t work).
But the rest manage to push, if not urgently, at different boundaries and open up more interesting lines of enquiry. The (Power) Ballad of Caitlin Jones looks at what exactly we mean by soulmate. Is it the person you love most, the person who loves you most, the person you have most in common with – and can they all exist in one?
What if the person you have most in common with is bad for you – matching all the truest, worst parts of you that would have continued to lie dormant without the computer’s unassailable reach? I would note, however, that this episode’s lack of understanding and incorporation of the differences between male violence against women, and vice versa, makes for an approach that many will find wanting.
This might be a good summary of the series as a whole. Each story slips down easily – perhaps too easily. Sometimes, even obvious avenues are left unexplored. The story of a straight woman whose soulmate turns out to be another woman looks set to be an exploration of the questions around sexual fluidity and identity, but instead becomes the story of another couple trying to fit their matches into the established pattern of their lives with as little disruption as possible.
A second season of Soulmates has been commissioned. Perhaps that will give its makers the courage to thicken this thin gruel and serve up something much tastier next time.
As 2021 unfolds …
Top Sarah Snook and Kingsley Ben-Adir in Soulmates. Photograph: Jorge Alvarino/AMC and published by The Guardina
Home Page: Photo: A romantic couple. Photo: Wyatt Fisher http://www.drwyattfisher.com/products/couples-retreat-california (CC BY-SA 2.0)