Kiss Me First premieres on Netflix on June 29th.
By John Baker
There are some tough things swirling around the head and heart of Leila, a 20-something British woman. Her mom has just died and the solitary life this shy, retiring woman has been leading most of her life is about to change – drastically. That’s the foundation that a new Netflix show, “Kiss Me First,” stands on, but certainly not the only thing that makes it click. Not by a long shot.
You see, Leila does have an outlet. She has a passion for online gaming and in the video world of AZANA, she’s able to more freely express herself. Through it, she finds that much of what she thought about the gaming world, and herself, is capable of changing.
“Kiss Me First” offers a look at the lives of young British singles who are in various state of brokenness and marginalization and the comfort and escapism that gaming provides. Leila thrives in this world, but her innate curiosity, something she displays to alarming and irritating effect throughout the show, takes her to, dare I say it, the next level.
Within AZANA’s world, a character named Adrian has built upon the normal game. He’s created a secret world called “Red Pill,” which, as you might be thinking, is an ode to the two-pill choice Neo was faced with in “The Matrix.” The Red Pill is made up of young people with, as noted above, various degrees of social and emotional struggle. They have found in Red Pill, and Adrian, a place where they can be who they feel they’re most comfortable being.
It’s a magical haven for them all and, after Leila (who goes by the Avatar Shadowfax), is led toward the Red Pill realm, she begins to discover just how powerful and seductive it is — and how powerful Adrian is within the game. It’s a world of calm, comfort and, as we find out through the six-episode run, very real danger.
Outside the game, Leila sees her world start to open up. She gets her first job (at a diner), takes in a lodger in aspiring actor Jonty, and comes face-to-face with the woman behind the Avatar that had been subtly recruiting her, Tess (known as Mania in the AZANA world).
Simona Brown is a revelation as the hurting and rebellious Tess. She’s electric in the scenes she’s in and delivers a carefree, yet painful, character that we alternately fall in love with while knowing she’s likely to let us, and Leila, down. She’s a delight to watch, but you just can’t help but expect the other shoe to fall with this character.
Together, Jonty and Tess bring the shy Leila out of her lifelong shell. It’s a classic caterpillar to butterfly scenario, but as mentioned before, everyone in this story has some issues. Part of the tale is how Leila manages those issues in the dueling aspects of the outside world and AZANA.
It’s an intriguing walk through the allure of escaping a real world that’s less than desired for a make-believe world where all that you struggle with slips away, replaced by all that you hoped you could be. What we find out, however, is that the Red Pill has a dark side. Adrian is a dynamic leader with a soft and caring voice. But make no mistake about it, he’s the leader of the Red Pill and his ability to create wonder and comfort in this hidden realm sucks his followers in deeper and deeper. Matthew Beard is splendid as Adrian, a seemingly caring and compassionate sort who, through the world of Red Pill, helps those he deems worthy of help.
The viewer sees what’s happening clearly enough, but Adrian’s deft tech touch and intuitive nature allow him to touch each character in a special and unique way. And sometimes that leads to some very dark places. There’s a cult of sorts at work here, one that Adrian adroitly brings together bit by bit. He’s dangerous and subtle.
Tallulah Haddon is on-point as the burgeoning Leila, a young woman with a dark secret who finds the energy and passion of newly-found friends Tess and Jonty to be liberating. Her quiet, care-giver existence is shattered by these new friends and while exciting, her penchant for intrusive behavior with other people’s computer systems leads to some startling revelations. But that’s okay because she’s being watched as well, giving the proceedings a bit of an intrusive feel on a regular basis.
“Kiss Me First” is an interesting look at the power and pull that online gaming has for people who feel at odds with the world around them. And the work of shifting between the gaming and real world is done pretty well in this show, which I appreciated. While some give themselves totally to the experience, others, like Tess, don’t stop asking questions of those they’re involved in. Sometimes, the answers from “Red Pill” are disturbing – but rarely boring.
I give Kiss Me First a B-.