Soulmates

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Bill Skarsgard and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in Soulmates.
Bill Skarsgard and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in Soulmates.
Photo: Jorge Alvarino/AMC

SHOW:

Soulmates

WHERE TO WATCH:

Amazon Prime Video

OUR RATING:

2/5 Stars

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

Some 15 years in the future, scientists discover a way to identify a person's one and only soulmate. Soulmates tell six separate stories set in this world as couples, singles and strangers are forced to confront what having "one true love" really means.

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

You wait forever to see a limited series about what would happen if science found a way to identify a person's soulmate and two hit streaming services at once. Well, if not at once, then just weeks apart. One of them, simply titled The One (review forthcoming), is based very loosely on a flawed but intriguing novel by John Marrs that tells the story of a DNA test that can identify a person's perfect match and five different characters who take the test and have to live with the consequences. Soulmates is... pretty much, exactly the same.

Not that this is a complaint, necessarily. It's a very smart, if no doubt, scientifically iffy, premise with endless potential that can be used to explore the very idea of love in our modern age. It's modern love with a sci-fi twist or, more appropriately, one of the more romantic episodes of Black Mirror writ large. Indeed, the co-creator of Soulmates is William Bridges, who co-wrote one of the best episodes of Black Mirror – the Star Trek homage, USS Callister.

The most obvious comparison to Charlie Brooker's modern-classic anthology show, though, is not USS Callister but Hang the DJ: yet another top-tier Black Mirror episode that centres around an app that matches people up and calculates, to the minute, exactly how long their relationship will last. Like the show's other big, romantic (and flat out best) episode, San Junipero, it was an exception to the much more cynical, twisted tone of the rest of the series. And it's clearly right there in the background of every episode of Soulmates.  

Bridges is joined by comedy writer, actor, and podcast host, Brett Goldstein, who just recently played an instrumental part as both a writer/ creator and actor on the endlessly delightful Ted Lasso and who – in theory at least – brings a more satirical, overtly comic edge to the proceedings. Bridges and Goldstein wrote the bulk of the series, with Bridges directing the last of these six episodes.

This is a show, basically, with some serious pedigree behind it, a brilliant premise and a really strong cast. It has already been renewed for a second season. So why (and I'm sure you saw this coming) is it such a crushing disappointment?

Anthology shows are, by their very nature, very hit and miss. But, by my count, what we have here are six episodes of which only one is genuinely good. A further two are pretty good, and the remaining three are dull beyond words. There aren't any truly bad episodes but having three episodes that resolutely fail to get even an inch off the ground is almost worse – especially because the other half of the series isn't quite good enough to make up for them.   

Breaking things down, then, the series begins on a bum note with Watershed, an obvious, drawn-out, and simply uninteresting episode that takes the premise of the show and reduces it to a "the grass is always greener on the other side" story about a boring but happy couple, Nikki (Sarah Snook) and Franklin (rising star, Kingsley Ben-Adir). Their cosy life is disturbed when she decides to take the soulmate test. Things play out about as you may expect, but its biggest flaw is that it is such a strange choice for a premiere episode.

Obviously, the idea of a soulmate test is ridiculous by definition, but a more dedicated exploration of the device at the heart of the show would have made for a much more compelling opener than this damp squib of a romantic drama. Sarah Snook, Anna Wilson-Jones, and Kingsley Ben-Adir try their best to inject some life into the episode's love triangle, but they're defeated by bland writing.

Things do, fortunately, pick up a bit with the second episode, The Lovers. It actually does even less with the series' premise than the previous episode, but the way it turns from being basically the same story about a boring but solid couple, into something much more sinister is actually pretty entertaining. It even throws in a surprise twist or two along the way so that it's actually best not to go into any particular detail on what it's about. It's still nothing special, though, and the fact that we're two episodes in and all the show has to say so far is "be careful what you wish for", is more than a little worrying.

Things certainly don't improve with the third episode, Little Adventures, because, aside from a cute ending, it's much too similar to the first episode and only slightly more engaging. Again, we have a happy couple, Adam (Shamier Anderson) and Libby (Laia Costa), whose lives are disrupted when one of them discover that they are "fated" for someone else entirely. In this case, Libby, who took the test when she was unsure about her future with Adam, suddenly gets matched up with her soulmate, Miranda (Georgina Campbell).

The central couple are certainly more engaging (if often more annoying) than Nikki and Franklin, and what it has to say about love is smarter and more unorthodox than the previous episodes. It's also, by far, the most playful of the three episodes so far. The problem, though, is that there's about enough material for a 21-minute short and it struggles to fill a humble 40-minute runtime. Most irritatingly, though, this marks the halfway point in the season, and nothing remotely worthwhile has been done with that incredibly promising premise. Little Adventures has the most to say about love so far, but with the slightest tweak, it could easily have been an episode of Modern Love.

You would hardly be blamed for giving up by this point but persevere a bit longer, and you'll get to the two best episodes of the season. Not just yet, though, because Episode 4, Layover, is easily the worst episode yet. Layover tells the story of a young, gay American, Mateo, who is on his way to meet his soulmate in South America, who has what is supposed to be a short layover in Mexico. But things take an unexpected turn when he is seduced by a charming stranger, Jonah. While hooking up, Jonah rips off Mateo, stealing his passport and wallet. Mateo quickly hunts down Jonah and retrieves his wallet, but, as it turns out, Jonah already gave away his passport, and the two men are once again forced together – this time to find Mateo's passport before he misses his fateful flight. Yes, what happens next is exactly what you expect. And I do mean exactly.

Never mind Layover's predictability, though; what's even worse is that this is clearly supposed to be a more lighthearted, almost swashbuckling romantic adventure, but it somehow manages to be the most boring and uninspired episode in the whole first season. More stuff happens in this episode than any of the previous ones, but it's all just so lifeless and unengaging. Bill Skarsgard and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett do actually have some decent chemistry, but the adventure they share is purely paint by numbers, while the relationship they form never really convinces. And again, is this really the best the show can do with the Soulmate test itself?   

Fortunately, the final two episodes go some way towards, at least, partially redeeming this bumpy first season. If these episodes were written and produced in order, then this would be the point where the series finally starts to find its footing – I don't believe that's the case, though, which means these could just be a bright aberration rather than a true turning point for the series overall.

The penultimate episode, Break On Through, finally tackles the premise of the show head-on by tackling one of the most obvious connotations of the very idea of a "soulmate": religion, souls and the existence of an afterlife. The episode involves a young man, Kurt (Charlie Heaton), who, after finding out that his soulmate had died, tried to take his own life. After joining a fairly typical Christian "support" group that's mostly about forcing the idea that had he actually managed to kill himself, he would burn in hell for all eternity; he is drawn to a death cult where people like himself take the "holy" next step by ending their life together and being reunited with their true soulmates.

Break On Through has what is easily the best plot of the series, but the reason it works as well as it does – and it does despite several flaws; including a not very convincing romance between Kurt and a somewhat older widow, Martha (Malin Ackerman) – is its thematic richness and willingness to really explore how something like a Soulmate test would affect people of simple faith.

Finally, there is what is the best episode of the season by a country mile, the final episode: The (Power) Ballad of Caitlin Jones. Part of what's so great about it is that some of its narrative twists and turns are genuinely surprising, so I'll try to give away as little as possible, but the basic plot involves a lonely woman named, as you may have guessed, Caitlin Jones (Betsy Brandt in the best performance of the season by far), who finally meets her soulmate, a handsome doctor, Nathan (JJ Field) but when she finds out certain things about him that leads to an eventual breakup, it sets her off on a path of radical self-discovery.

Once again, making the best of the show's central premise in what is an intriguing and thematically complex hour that takes a rather different look at the certain implications of the existence of soulmates, it is also just flat out the most compelling and captivating episode of the season with excellent performances, a smart script, a beautifully drawn central character, and real psychological depth. Indeed, it represents such a massive jump in quality that it's hard to believe that it's the same series.          

Again, I do hope that these final episodes are when  the show finally finds its footing for what will hopefully be a much-improved sophomore season (which has already been commissioned) and are not just an unexpected aberration. They're not enough to save a very wobbly season of television, though. On the plus side, this being an anthology show, you can check out the last couple of episodes without needing to bother with any of the rest.

In fact, that's precisely what you should do.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:

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