Soulmates has the potential to be an anthology dream. Set in the near future after the discovery of the “soul particle,” the AMC series asks what it means to live in a world where you can be paired, through irrefutable scientific proof, with the one person who is destined to be your soulmate. Then it asks it again. And again, over the course of six standalone, hour-long episodes linked by this single, tantalizing what-if.
It’s an intriguing setup and one that could go to some fascinating places.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t.
It’s easy to compare Soulmates to Black Mirror. I’m sure I won’t be the only reviewer to do so. While that is certainly not the only star-studded, near-future, soft sci-fi anthology series, it’s definitely the one by which all others are destined to be measured. And by that metric, Soulmates falls woefully short.
The thing is, Black Mirror — as with a lot of its copycats and spiritual cousins — introduces a new concept with each episode. And you explore that concept, along with the social implications and complications of the protagonists, simultaneously. It’s a fun system. Not one that lands every single time, but one that always keeps you on your toes.
And the first episode of Soulmates does feel like just that: a good episode of Black Mirror. Opening with a pitch-perfect advertisement for Soul Connex, the company that performs the infamous test, the inaugural installment, “Watershed,” introduces us to a world that’s just starting to shift to make room for this earth-shattering change. At once a primer for a universe with soulmates and an intense examination of all that implies, the episode follows a couple who married and started a family before the soul particle was discovered and now have to wonder whether what they’ve built together is enough. Carried beautifully by Succession’s Sarah Snook, “Watershed” is an intriguing, pretty deftly executed hour of television. It sticks to the basics and goes deep into their implications.
It’s a strong start, and honestly worth watching on its own.
Sadly, the premiere only serves as a starting point that does all the heavy lifting so the rest of the episodes don’t have to. And they don’t, particularly. Set slightly further in the future when soulmates are a fact of life, the first season’s remaining five episodes are more or less a free-for-all, telling stories that exist in a world with soulmates but could, theoretically, be told in one in which they don’t. In one particularly egregious example, one of the two soulmates in question never even appears onscreen.
That’s not to say that the stories told aren’t all good, or that they don’t have anything to do with the premise that tenuously joins them. Some decent questions are raised. What do you do if you’re already married and then you find your soulmate? What do you do if your soulmate is dead? What do you do if your soulmate isn’t what you expect, given what you know about yourself?
But an hour (forty-five minutes, really, with commercials) is maybe not long enough to explore those questions with any kind of nuance. Or at least, it’s not long enough when paired with the kind of flippant tone many of the installments adopt, simultaneously trying to pack in too much content and giving us too little chance to know or care about the characters. How many shocking twists about people you don’t know can you handle in one hour before you stop caring altogether?
The answer is not as many as Soulmates thinks.
On the whole, the show’s production value is high, and the performances are better than the writing deserves. There’s a brand new cast with each episode, but there’s always at least one familiar face, usually from far more prestige TV: In addition to Snook, the cast of “Watershed” includes Breaking Bad‘s David Costabile while another Breaking Bad alum, Betsy Brandt, appears in a later installment.
A surprising standout is Bill Skarsgård. His episode, “Layover,” is probably the weakest of the six, both because it’s a little too sloppy and zany to be enjoyable and because it’s only tangentially related to the whole “soulmates” premise. But by god, in a sea of heartbreak and miserable destiny, it’s the only episode that’s the least bit funny, and that’s due almost entirely to Skarsgård’s impressive comedic timing and perfect reaction shots. I never thought I’d say it, but Bill Skarsgård is hilarious, and I pray he gets more chances to be funny (in a non-evil-clown way) in the future.
Soulmates has already been renewed by AMC for a second season, and it’ll be interesting to see what they can pull off next, and who they can get on board. There’s definitely room to grow here, and I’d love to see it work.
Soulmates premieres on October 5th on AMC.