Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

AMC’s sci-fi anthology Soulmates quickly loses its spark

Charlie Heaton and Malin Akerman in Soulmates, “Break On Through”
Charlie Heaton and Malin Akerman in Soulmates, “Break On Through”
Photo: Jorge Alvarino/AMC
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In sci-fi, there are few things more disappointing than a story planted in fertile ground only to bear sour fruit. Take, for example, the well-examined idea of soulmates: Many have attempted to mesh idyllic romance with scientific rigidity, with varying results. The favorable iterations among them—for instance, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind or Philip Wang’s Everything Before Ususe tools of fantasy to explore very real ideologies that make love and belonging so marvelously complex, like free will or the pressures of societal norms. Soulmates, AMC’s newest anthology offering, makes the barest of attempts to do as much, presenting six completely different stories that are tenuously connected by the idea that every person has a genetically predetermined soulmate.

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That’s six chances to traverse somewhat untrodden ground, six opportunities to craft stories that are uniquely human, or on the other end of the spectrum, courageously unorthodox. In short, this was a chance to say something different or intriguing about human connection. Considering that the patchwork series is the brainchild of co-creators William Bridges of Black Mirror and Brett Goldstein of Apple’s surprise hit Ted Lasso, this seems like a fairly manageable challenge, especially considering Bridges’ work on “U.S.S. Callister.” But aside from its pilot episode, Soulmates is largely a collection of chemistry-less performances and outdated tropes, some of which are so egregious that they overshadow any attempt at memorable storytelling. What’s more, the show’s most interesting pull—an advanced system geared toward finding one’s biologically linked beloved—is something that the viewer never gets to see in full.

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What makes this outcome especially distressing is that Soulmates starts notably strong with “Watershed,” which stars Succession’s Sarah Snook and High Fidelity’s Kingsley Ben-Adir. Playing longtime married couple and parents Nikki and Franklin, Snook and Ben-Adir excel as struggling lovers who are tasked with reevaluating their bond after the emergence of Soul Connex (widely referred to as The Test), which is steadily rearranging the lives of those closest to them. At first, Nikki is a pragmatic skeptic who insists on choosing the life they’ve built over the course of 15 years. But as she becomes acutely aware of their increasingly strained communication and lack of passion, Nikki begins to question whether or not love and history are potent enough to take them the distance. Here, “Should I or should I not take The Test?” proves to be an effective stand-in for “Is there something better out there?”—a question that can ravage even the strongest of unions during periods of weakness. Although the story isn’t without its prickly points—even a standout performance from Snook can’t cure Nikki’s moments of inexplicable coldness—it’s easily the best of the batch and illustrates how well Soulmates works when it’s grounded in something real.

But any goodwill established by Soulmates’ first episode is seemingly eradicated by most of the entries that follow thanks to a number of rote, occasionally harmful tropes that signal, at best, an alarming lack of creativity. Immediately following the pilot is “The Lovers,” which centers on married professor David (David Costabile), who winds up in an affair with his perceived soulmate, Alison (Sonya Cassidy). Even as the writers attempt something akin to a twist toward the end, the result is an archetypal “crazy ex” tale that mostly paints David as a victim of both a female predator with a grudge and young, overly invested co-eds. “The (Power) Ballad Of Caitlin Jones,” led in earnest by Breaking Bad’s Betsy Brandt, could have ascended as an empowering tale of finding one’s agency while enduring damaging relationships, if that titular power weren’t something that she credits almost entirely to a violent ex (JJ Feild). “Break On Through” begins and nearly ends with two separate cases of potential fridging in order to furnish Kurt’s (Charlie Heaton) forgettable experience with a cult that promises to reunite mateless followers with their deceased loved ones. (“This woman and her narrative are treated terribly” is a running theme throughout the series, in case that’s not clear.) Notably, these are the three episodes that try to follow Black Mirror’s blueprint the closest without really interrogating the idea of soulmates or even the technology that determines them, like its peer would have likely done.

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Bill Skarsgård and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in Soulmates, “Layover”
Bill Skarsgård and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in Soulmates, “Layover”
Photo: Jorge Alvarino/AMC

Of Soulmates’ many missteps, the biggest among them is “Layover,” penned by Evan Placey. Set in Placey’s version of Mexico, Mateo (Bill Skarsgård) hooks up with and is subsequently robbed by Jonah (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) just before he is scheduled to travel abroad to meet his wealthy soulmate. The audience is then taken on a whirlwind journey as the embattled men search the city for Mateo’s stolen passport and, in a way that remains a total mystery given the lack of tangible chemistry, grow closer to one another. A story meant to explore the idea of fate versus autonomy is ultimately marred by wall-to-wall Mexican stereotypes, including a misguided portrayal of something meant to resemble brujería, cockroach races, and at least one warehouse packed with drugs and heavily artillery. All of it is worth mentioning because none of it is truly integral to Mateo and Jonah’s journey. This story could have taken place just about anywhere in the world. It all boils down to a rather baffling choice, one that is rooted in the same racist storytelling that has been used to define Mexico and other Latin American countries throughout entertainment’s history. Pair it with Mateo, a white tourist, being both a victim of nearly every person of color he meets and Jonah’s literal savior once their troubles reach climactic heights and you’re left with a particularly foul aftertaste. That’s honestly a shame, considering just how much charm Skarsgård and Stewart-Jarrett try to inject into the episode, despite the regressive material they’re given.

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Soulmates feels like neither an indictment nor a celebration of the concept of predestined lovers, but rather a cluster of underdeveloped ideas loosely held together by it. Although the unfortunate aspects of the series have no apparent bearing on its fate—AMC renewed the show for a second season prior to the series premiere—one can hope that the creative team takes stock of the promising world they’re playing in and gives its viewers something meaningful or, at minimum, different the second time around.

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