There’s some really interesting stuff going on in Amazon’s Soulmates. Despite being dangerously close to a Black Mirror spin-off, the series makes a real stab at trying to carve out its own niche, approaching each episode with an eye for subtlety and an impulse to explore the furthest corners of its warped world, rather than retrace its footsteps. This gamble results in a few extremely good episodes of TV, a couple of so-so episodes, and unfortunately a couple of misfires. But with so little room to grow in such a crowded market, it’s easy to wonder if Soulmates would do any better with a second season, or if it should simply be allowed to retire early, before the well of ideas dries up for good.
Make no mistake: Soulmates gets a lot of stuff right. It shies away from the shock and horror of Black Mirror, reining in its excesses to place its characters centre stage, even in its less impressive episodes. The gimmick at its centre is interesting: In the next decade, a machine can tell you your soulmate for a fee – the person you are ideal for. Each episode of the anthology deals with this in an appropriately different way. In Watershed, the simplest but most captivating episode, a strained but loving marriage struggles as others find supposed happiness in their soulmates.
In Break On Through, a depressed loner, whose soulmate has died long before they could meet, gets drawn into a dangerous cult. The pace, setting, and thematic exploration of each episode all feel remarkably different, to the credit of the talented writers. The episodes Watershed and Little Adventures feel especially like Black Mirror in its glory days – introspective, insightful, and relatable, with fascinating casts and compelling narratives.
On the other hand, Soulmates begins to stumble quickly, and other episodes simply don’t hold up as well. The Lovers barely explores the central conceit of the series, relegating the ‘Soulmate-finding machine’ to a moot story point before veering off into a weak revenge thriller. Layover has a wonderful dynamic between its two main characters, but spoils the fun with a shoddy story and uninspired themes. All of this is to say that there’s just not enough consistency in this series – for every excellent episode there’s one that’s just…ok. But in today’s world of high-budget TV and speculative sci-fi, it’s a crowded market, and one in which Soulmates is struggling to distinguish itself. Is there hope in sight for the future, though?
In short, it’s unlikely. Speculative near-future sci-fi comes cheap nowadays and there’s just so much competition, not to mention audience apathy. There’s more or less no guarantee that Soulmates will have the capacity to innovate and change to the extent that every episode is consistently worth it for an audience who’ve already seen so much similar stuff on screen. There’s every reason to appreciate the writers, who generally have done very well, especially on dialogue and characterisation, but it’s hard to imagine them creating enough unique, thematically engaging concepts to satisfy a sufficiently revitalised second season, especially after their previous misfires. Is that unfair on a series that’s produced some top-notch pieces of science fiction? Possibly, but that level of innovation in such a packed genre would be impressive for even the most talented writers.
To put it bluntly: Soulmates is pretty good, but not consistently so, and a successful future would require immense innovation in the genre. And yet – a second season has already been commissioned. So, here’s to optimism.
Image: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons