Without a doubt, Bryan Elsey is best known for co-creating the angsty teen drama Skins, both the inarguably superior UK original (2007-2013) and the ill-conceived, amusingly bad MTV remake (2011). He had some later success with 2013’s Dates, a romantic series that was charming enough to overcome its faults, but for the most part Elsey’s name is tied directly to Skins — and the sex, drugs, and Britpop of it all. The way the series approached teens (simultaneously treating them as equals while showcasing the stupid choices that are fueled by unabashed youthfulness) was admirable and lasting; even the bad seasons of Skins remain re-watchable because the fun is almost tangible. That’s why it’s so interesting to see Elsey return to a teen world — albeit an updated, futuristic world that largely takes place inside of a video game.
Kiss Me First is a joint production between E4 (in April, it aired weekly on UK’s Channel 4) and Netflix (it premieres in full on Friday, June 29). Adapted from Lottie Moggach’s YA novel of the same name, Kiss Me First has that sweet, six-episode season that works so well for a UK series, allowing it to tell a full story without killing time with filler. (A model that I desperately hope Netflix originals learn to follow!) Following the death of her mother, already-reclusive 17-year-old Leila (Tallulah Haddon) is left further on her own: friendless, broke, and alone. She works a crappy job and soon gets a roommate, aspiring actor Jonty (Matthew Aubrey), who provides much of the series’ broad humor as he horribly practices famous monologues, but for the most part she just plunges herself into gaming. More specifically, the virtual reality game Azana, in which characters engage in combat, I suppose, but mostly it appears they just kinda hang out and talk (in the book, there’s no VR, only a message board).
Kiss Me First alternates between the real world and Azana, with images that aren’t quite up to snuff but are inserted seamlessly enough that it’s not distracting. Within the game, Leila discovers a secret, hidden little world with a group of gamers who call themselves — wait for it — Red Pill. Granted, Kiss Me First nods to The Matrix (Leila searches the term online) and its original emphasis on truth and knowledge, but it still feels odd that the series never once acknowledges the term’s toxic co-opting by men’s rights activists (it’s a little similar to the whole Maroon 5 weirdness last year). This Red Pill group are self-described “losers” who are “fucked up” and have “stuff.” The “stuff” isn’t just general teen angst, but mental illness, abuse, and so on. (In Red Pill, they also have illegal tech that allows them to feel pleasure and pain.) At first, it almost seems like maybe it’s a little support group but, well, this is a “cyber-thriller” TV series. It quickly gets sinister as it introduces Azana leader Adrian (voiced by Matthew Beard) who preys on the broken members of Red Pill. Of course, only Leila is the one to notice.
But first, Leila (“Shadowfax”) meets Tess (“Mania”), played by the talented Simona Brown, and the two have an instant connection in real life. They’re infatuated with each other, both platonically and perhaps romantically; there is inherent queerness in how badly Leila wants to be Tess, slipping on Tess’ clothes and logging on to her gaming character to pretend to be “Mania” in Azana. Tess is a charismatic, outgoing party girl — in the pilot, Kiss Me First slips into Skins territory as they do drugs and go clubbing — but soon we learn that we’ve met her during an “up” mood, which means she’s certain to crash.
There are times when Kiss Me First stumbles with the Azana stuff — clumsy dialogue, silly reveals, odd pacing — but fortunately, the Tess/Leila stuff in the real world mostly makes up for it. It’s in these moments (and when we meet some other avatars out in the world) where it starts to make sense why Elsey was attracted to adapting the novel. These characters are lonely, fragile, desperate for connections through any means. There’s so much desire within them, whether it’s for another person or for a video game or for simple stability. They’re dramatic in the way that everyone is dramatic as a teenager, but there’s also (usually) valid reasons for their actions. Elsey gets to explore what makes these teens tick, but he also gets to do so in dueling worlds that increasingly blend together in creepy, intriguing ways.
The problem, mainly, is that Kiss Me First loses the thread after the first half. It’s a series that demands you suspend disbelief, which isn’t normally a problem, but then it takes leaps and bounds that don’t seem to follow any plan. While Kiss Me First originally treats its characters with care (particularly Tess, whose disorder is never named but is almost certainly bipolar) but then it casts these cares aside in order to ramp up the technological weirdness and nonsensical plots. It’s a show that starts promising and then jarringly devolves, becoming a poor version of Black Mirror meets 13 Reasons Why.