Kiss Me First is a new Netflix/British Channel 4 series that is loosely based on Lottie Moggach’s 2014 debut novel of the same name. The six episode first season focusses on Leila (Tallulah Haddon), a young woman whose mother has just died, and Tess (Simona Brown), a mentally ill woman with a troubled history.
Both women escape from the difficulties of their lives using a ubiquitous gaming program called Azana Planet, but Tess, known as Mania within the game, has found her way into a hacked section of the program that’s set up as a private meeting space. It’s reserved for friends of a gamer who calls himself Adrian (Matthew Beard), who collects troubled young people and theoretically gives them what they need.
Eventually Leila, who goes by the name Shadowfax in the game, also finds her way into the private space. The club and its virtual clubhouse are known as Red Pill, for the pill Neo took to get out of the Matrix, rather than the Men’s Rights Activists’ delusion of choice. Before long, Leila suspects that Adrian isn’t as benign as the others thinks he is. Her real world investigation of Adrian involves the rest of the Red Pill members and becomes high stakes, as members start meeting sinister fates, one by one.
Kiss Me First puts a science fiction gloss over a film noir combination of the old movies Kiss Me Deadly and Rear Window. I bet you thought I was going to say Black Mirror and Ready Player One. Nope. Life existed before Black Mirror. I hope someone will delete my post if I ever say a show is derivative of it, since, enjoyable as it can be, it’s largely the derivative one. Same with Ready Player One.
Kiss Me First has the plot structure of film noir psychological thriller, which does require the viewer to watch closely and keep up with the details. It doesn’t necessarily go where you think it’s going to, but the place it does go is pretty interesting. Look at the titles here- Kiss Me First vs Kiss Me Deadly- that’s where the influence lies.
In Kiss Me First, the virtual reality simulations play the role of the rear window that Jimmy Stewart voyeuristically observed his neighbors through. There are too many similarities for me to go into between Kiss Me First and Kiss Me Deadly without spoiling most of the plot, but I will say that both have the typical convoluted noir plot, kidnappings, disappearances, reappearances, lies and manipulations, and a very important box.
And, of course, we have Tess as the required Femme Fatale, Leila as the shady investigator, her housemate Jonty (Matthew Aubrey) as the innocent secretary type (nice gender switching on the investigator and the secretary), and Adrian as the cunning, obsessive villain. As with all noirs, the story is really a game of wits between the investigator and the villain in the end, as the villain thinks they are smart enough to get away with their crimes forever, but they are also intrigued by the detective.
That’s the fun of a noir. The vivid characters, mystery, and battle of wits are what the story is about. This season doesn’t resolve every arc, because they’re hoping for a season two, and because life is messy. There are some intriguing elements in this story and in the graphics that I don’t want to spoil here, but I’m looking forward to exploring their ramifications in the episode recaps.
I very much enjoyed the work of all three leads and the supporting cast. It’s not often that we get to see a female lead in a noir who is effective, but stays female in her characterization, instead of taking on the characteristics of the hardboiled male detective. Leila is complex, and at times contradictory, just like a real person. She grows and changes and makes mistakes. She explores her sexuality, her talents and her strengths. Tallulah Haddon bring a quiet self-possession and understatedness to the role that draws to viewer to her. Simona Brown as Tess is a fantastic down on her luck bad girl with a heart of gold, just waiting for someone to see her and believe in her. She’s absolutely beautiful, but also wears every trouble she’s ever known on her face and in her eyes. Jonty provides some welcome lightness and occasional down to earth practicality to the situation. He’s the kind of guy who takes whatever life throws at him in stride, which is exactly what Leila and Tess need. Matthew Aubrey plays him with complete ease.
I’m not a gamer, so I can’t speak to those aspects of the production. The animated graphics weren’t wildly sophisticated, but they seemed fine to me. Some graphic elements were incorporated at intriguing points in the story, and the live action characters were mingled within the animated world a couple of times in a clever but subtle way. That raises some story questions for the future, which is always a bonus to me. The sound editing used similar techniques, blurring the lines between what was real and what was virtual.
Kiss Me First was created by Bryan Elsley, co-creator of the long running British teen show Skins. Skins had a long time to explore many important topics, while Kiss Me First has only scratched the surface. It does begin to examine patriarchy, feminism, the heroine’s journey, mercy killings, homophobia, mental illness and its effect on the people around the ill person, grief, loneliness, child abandonment, exploring sexualities, drug use, cults, and using technology to replace real life.
Grade for the season: A
(Edited 7/18/18. After rewatching episode 1 for recapping purposes, I realized some things that I missed in my first late night viewing, so I’ve bumped the grade up half a letter grade. I’m very excited about this show. Hopefully it will get a season 2 and be able to keep going the way it has been without diluting its characters or message to be more palatable to the masses. If not, it will join the list of prescient shows that will eventually become cult shows seen as being ahead of their time. I implore viewers to watch the show that it is, with an open mind, not the show that other reviewers think it should be.)
Image courtesy of Netfix.