Kiss Me First, which is new to American audiences on Netflix, but originally premiered back in April in the UK, is a bizarre story for young adults. If it's not the appalling number of references to anal sex, it's the borderline encouragement of suicide or the overall idea that nothing matters because "lunatics are in charge now." Overall, I have to wonder what the creators were thinking, and what anyone was thinking, either here or abroad, in choosing to air it.
The premise of the show is an interesting one. Our protagonist is 17-year-old Leila (Tallulah Haddon), who has just lost her mother to a terminal illness. We know how alone she is in the world by the fact that she is the only person at her mother's funeral, but she finds solace and kinship in the online gaming world of Azana. She quickly finds a hidden world within the game called Red Pill, a place where similarly lonely teens spend time together - virtually.
If you're not familiar with the term "red pill," it comes from the movie The Matrix, in which the character Neo is given a choice between taking two different pills. If he takes the red one, he sees the whole truth of the world. If he takes the blue pill, he wakes up in his bed and he can keep believing whatever he wants to believe. In recent years, it has come to mean people who have turned right-wing or who espouse right-wing beliefs.
They are said to have "red pilled." For some reason, this is frequently considered an insult, though I'm not sure why "Hey, that guy chose to see reality" is supposed to be a bad thing. It turns out that the members of Red Pill in Kiss Me First turns are being manipulated by a master puppeteer, named Adrian (Matthew Beard), so that makes me think it is supposed to be a political message.
As Leila gets more into Red Pill, she befriends fellow player Tess (Simona Brown) who goes by the name Mania in the game. Tess has a mental illness that is never defined, but appears to be Bipolar disorder. The two broken young women gravitate to each other in a bizarre, unhealthy way. The first thing they do together is go clubbing, after which they spend the night in the same bed - Tess in just her panties, Leila in her underwear. Later, Tess will encourage Leila to take her bra off for bed, too, and she does.
Tess has recently broken up with her boyfriend Connor, not because he's married (which he is), but because he was way too into anal sex and Tess wasn't. This is brought up several more times, including when she gets back together with him anyway, when Leila finds a video of them having anal sex, and when she uses the video to blackmail Connor into leaving Tess alone (almost making it seem as though having sex tapes lying around is a good idea, just in case you need to blackmail somebody someday). I'm pretty sure the appropriate number of times to mention this particular sexual act in a young adult show is zero. Kiss Me First clearly disagreed.
They also treat life with little to no regard. We quickly find out that Leila's mother didn't actually die of her terminal illness, Leila overdosed her with medication to euthanize her at her mother's request. Somehow, that is the least disturbing death in the show, and there are several because Adrian is actually encouraging the members of Red Pill to commit suicide.
The player known as Calumny (George Jovanovic) lives in an abusive home and is encouraged to jump from his window, Denier (Samuel Bottomley) builds a suicide bomb and detonates it when his pedophile caretaker at a group home tries to force him into sex with others. After Calumny died, Leila figures out what's going on and tries to speak to Denier, telling him that there are other choices and she will help him get help, but he chooses the suicide bomb. Adrian then gets the police to look at Leila as a suspect.
Not sure what to believe, Tess asks Adrian if Calumny is really dead in real life, and Adrian tells her, "It's a shame, but he did what he had to do, and we can respect that." In fact, suicide is often spoken of in this show as though it is some kind of great relief or happily ever after. While it is the antagonist saying it, even the majority of the characters see him as friendly, making it incredibly creepy.
This is a horrible message about suicide, especially for young people - and especially for young people who are going to connect with a show about being terribly lonely and broken. Added to that the fact that Leila reaches out to an adult for help, her old math teacher, and he ends up murdered, it presents the message that young people have to handle problems on their own or risk dire consequences.
Adrian also pushes the one American character, Force (Freddie Stewart), into gun violence in true stereotypical fashion. He asks him to come to the UK to kill Leila, who is close to exposing him, with the promise of telling him where his online girlfriend named Jocasta lives. Force and Jocasta have been talking and flirting for quite some time online and have talked of meeting up in person - Adrian knows that Force has a troubled past and will do nearly anything to meet her. Force lies and tells Adrian that he has killed Leila in order to get Jocasta's address, only to find out that "she" is actually a "he." Jocasta is a wealthy young man named Jack (Misha Butler) neglected by his parents who hopes that Force will still love him in spite of being male. Adrian knows that this will push Force over the edge, and it does; Force tries to kill him.
Throughout the 6-part series, Adrian tries to get Tess to kill herself, but Leila is able to hold her back. At the end of the show, however, the last surviving members all end up in a tropical paradise together where Adrian tells them that this whole thing has been a game - but playing out in real life. The rest of Azana was a fighting game, but he supposedly created Red Pill as a place to hang out without conflict. Except that Adrian actually made Red Pill about real-life violence. Leila is forced to attack Tippi (Haruka Abe) and Force to save Tess.
The key thing is, Adrian doesn't think it matters. At the end of episode 5, "The Witch is Coming," he explains:
Adrian: Everything's a fraud. The world's fucked up. Lunatics are in charge now. But think about it some more. Life is just an adventure playground. Jesus! Don't take it so seriously.
So it's ok to push vulnerable people to murder and suicide because you don't like the current political climate? That is chief among the dangerously weird messages in Kiss Me First, but it's not the only one. The show would be bad enough if it were geared towards adults, but it's even worse as it is based on a young adult novel. Let's hope it doesn't get a second season to explore those issues more fully.