Kiss Me First review: Skins meets Ready Player One

Bryan Elsley’s new sci-fi drama is an impressive look at a virtual world – even if the realities of online culture are slightly overlooked

Simona Brown and Tallulah Haddon in Kiss Me First (Channel 4, HF)

If you were a fan of E4 smash-hit Skins, then there’s a lot in this new series that will appeal to you, not least the fact that it’s been made by Skins co-creator Bryan Elsley (adapted from Lottie Moggach’s 2013 novel of the same name).

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Kiss Me First shares Skins’ casual attitude to sex and drugs and its focus on deeper emotional issues affecting teenagers in the UK (including the struggles of mental illness). It even features one of its cast, with April Pearson (who played Michelle in the first two series of Skins) popping up in the second episode as a bitchy housemate.

However, there’s one big difference between the two shows that really breaks Kiss Me First out of Skins’ shadow – the fact that about half the action is completely computer-generated, taking place in a virtual reality game world called Azana that our characters access using fancy headsets and haptic gloves.

Basically, it’s a bit like the Oasis in recently-released Steven Spielberg movie Ready Player One, though instead of 1980s Easter eggs the focus here is on emotional repression and mental escape. And surprisingly (given that this is a UK TV series) the CGI is not awful, making the transition between the two worlds fairly smooth.

It’s in this bright computerised world that lonely lead character Leila (Tallulah Haddon) spends most of her time, trying desperately to avoid thinking about her mother’s recent death as she rattles around an ugly, empty house and cleans the floors of a café for spare change.

By contrast, in the world of Azana she’s a fighter called Shadowfax who can swoop through the skies, punch out a tank and battle her way past all sorts of foes – but she’s still curious about a player called Mania (Simona Brown), who vanishes inside a mysterious wood that no-one else can enter.

One day Leila follows her through, and discovers a group of outsiders have set up their own inner club, structured around enigmatic leader Adrian (Matthew Beard) and their use of banned sensory neckbands, which allow them to feel the pleasure and pain experienced by their online avatars.

This group is called Red Pill, and in one of the series’ less internet-savvy decisions there’s no mention of the fact that in the real world this term has been co-opted by extreme anti-feminist Men’s Rights Activists (in both the series and on these messageboards, they’re referring to the moment in 1999 film The Matrix where Keanu Reeves’ Neo opts to take a red pill to learn the truth about the world around him).

Being part of Kiss Me First’s Red Pill – which mainly consists of using your avatar to lounge near a lake chatting to people – seems much less fun than actually playing the main Azana game (you can fly!); the appeal of being part of the group remains slightly unclear in the first episode, though next week’s instalment helps flesh the group out a bit.

And anyway, Leila’s mainly there for the intriguing Mania, who she soon meets in real life (her real name’s Tess) before beginning a tentative, sweet semi-courtship that may be entirely one-sided given Tess/Mania’s greater confidence and experience.

In one particularly Skins-y scene, Tess and Leila go clubbing alongside Leila’s obnoxious Welsh lodger Jonty (well, I say obnoxious, but he’s remarkably chilled out about having to sleep in Leila’s dead mum’s room without being allowed to move any of her possessions) before heading back to Tess’ flat.

While Tess sleeps, Leila tries on her VR rig and becomes her avatar, Mania – just in time to see Adrian coax one of Red Pill’s members into doing something truly terrible.

Given how different this adaptation is from the novel (which revolves around internet messageboards rather than VR) it’s impossible to know where this story is going next – but I for one am plugged in and ready to play more.

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Kiss Me First begins on Channel 4 on Monday 2nd April at 10.00pm