It’s been said an awful lot over the years but I’m gonna say it again, thank God for Channel 4.
You have to imagine Kiss Me First would be too risky a concept for the BBC and far too original for the likes of ITV and possibly even Sky, two networks have very much live in a wheelhouse of repetition when it comes to their original dramas. In terms of the UK networks, it’s really down to Channel 4 to create innovative and unique shows that actually stretch the boundaries of what’s still possible in the realm of broadcast television, and with Kiss Me First, their latest series based on a book by Lottie Moggach – though their online world is on message boards, rather than the VR of this show – in a collaboration with Netflix scratches their ever-curious itch of ‘it’s new and fresh, let’s do it’. And so far, it’s paying off in abundance.
Landing on our screens only three days after the launch of Spielberg’s Ready Player One, thematically Kiss Me First feels far more grounded, despite sharing similar sensibilities. Both explore the wonder of a second life, one so far removed from our humdrum existence that it works as an escape. The mix of live-action and tremendous animation feels like a very natural way to tell this story. The gritty blankness of modern day East London an obvious counteract to the beauty of the escapism of the beautiful blue skies and seas within the online world of Azana. It may not be as utterly mind-blowing as the Oasis (at least not yet), but the stories told within are far more grounded, and work as a bold new way to tell a YA tale which works as the spine of the show.
Our protagonist is Leila, played by Tallulah Haddon. We meet her at her mothers funeral, where she is the single attendee. It’s clear she is an isolated teen at first, and her reliance on Azana is centrepoint to how we are introduced to the online world. The fantasy of being someone else, a heroic ass-kicking heroine known as Shadowfax is one Leila holds close to her chest, working out her bills and getting a job as a cleaner just to cover the subscription fees. It’s a place she feels free and without limits, a stark contrast to the real world she reluctantly inhabits.
Within the world of Avana she stumbles upon a paradise, an area of the map hidden from other players. Leila with all the excitement that you can imagine when discovering a new part of a map you never knew existed within a video game, enters the new area and is immediately confronted by those who dwell within. One of these inhabitants is Mania, an avatar who seems to have taken a sudden interest in Shadowfax. Why exactly? Well the show isn’t playing all of its cards right away, and rightfully so. After this brief encounter, Leila takes her curiousity up another level and discovers that her stumbling upon this new world opens up a brave new world within her real life. Whether it’s good or bad remains to be seen.
As a way of setting up a new series, this first episode is hugely intriguing. The solemn backdrop of a London with little to offer Leila, that it’s been created by talent behind Skins is immediately apparent, with that shows fingerprints all over Kiss Me First’s thematics and primary focus on the rather bleak and lonely existence of our antagonist. I won’t delve into spoilers, but the collision of the real and online worlds feels organic and is full of intrigue. Leila is surrounded by few other characters in this episode, allowing the opener to really focus on Leila’s budding relationships with those she meets in the online world, along with her new roommate who out of seemingly nowhere stumbles into her life, and out of work actor named Jonty whoLeila – at first – isn’t especially fond of. It adds a little comic relief to the darkness of her situation and the curious underbelly of the secret online world she discovered.
The biggest compliment I can pay to Kiss Me First is how human it all feels. First and foremost it’s a story about a lonely human who longs for something bigger than the life she leads, and the friendships she’ll build along the way. The first episode left me an array of questions – really, a whole lot of questions – that I hope over the course of the six-part series. WIth terrific performances (particularly from Haddon, immediately pulling us in and not letting go), strong independent female characters that anchor the main relationship that builds throughout and some spectacular visual centrepieces that backdrop Azana. Kiss Me First has the potential to be something very special. I can only hope it has a cracker of a story to tell after such a strong opener.
See you in Azana.
Kiss Me First is on Channel 4, Monday’s at 10pm. It will be distributed outside of the UK on Netflix.