The Twilight Zone will always cast a long shadow. Rod Serling’s brilliant, genre-defining morality tales have gone on to become the standard-bearer for all sci-fi anthology series for good reason. The truth is that few anthologies have ever attempted something similar, let alone come close, but with the recent popularity of Black Mirror, we’re on the cusp of a sci-fi anthology renaissance. The latest entry: Amazon’s Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, which has so banked on the author’s influence that his name made its way right into the title. The series certainly has the right pedigree, tripling-down with high-end producers Ronald D. Moore and Bryan Cranston getting into the mix, but how does it fare? Well, if the first episode is indicative of the series’ tone, it turns out that “dreams” is an apt name.
In episode one, “Real World,” things start well enough. We meet our tough future cop heroine in Sarah (Anna Paquin), who is deeply haunted by an event where a bunch of her fellow officers were gunned down in a haze of blood. She’s distracted, closed off, and replaying the event over and over again in her mind. This is, of course, trauma. But things take a turn when Sarah’s girlfriend Katie (Rachelle Lefevre) offers her “a vacation” in the form of a handy-dandy computer chip would allow her to experience the life of a whole new person. A person who will supposedly fulfill all her innermost wants and fantasies come true.
Sarah promptly finds herself in the life of George (Terrence Howard), a CEO who spends his nights going on vengeance missions as he hunts for the murderer of his wife. It becomes clear immediately that this is a power fantasy, a way to extract a kind of revenge that’s impossible in real life. (The depiction even comes complete with some nice textural commentary on the indulgent nature of action tropes.) But when Sarah realizes the killer of George’s wife is the same person who committed the attack on her and her compatriots, she is nearly knocked to the floor with emotion. Fully triggered, she says to us as George, “It feels like I want to cry.”
I’ll admit, my eyes lit up at this moment. This is smart, touching stuff, a wry commentary on the deeper traumatic issues and toxic masculinity that fuel revenge fantasy. And I was so excited to see the episode continue to explore these ideas in earnest. Instead, “Real Life” promptly spends the next 30-plus minutes getting lost in the fog of the boring questions of “wait, which reality is the real one?!” Both Sarah and George walk around like they’re in waking dreams, with the narrative rarely touching on anything beyond the mere texture of emotions like guilt. As a result, we constantly question every moment onscreen. George even tells us, “I keep feeling like there’s a deeper truth!” Sadly, this is all too common a misstep in sci-fi: It hits a snag whenever it becomes more interested in the deep mysteries of basic story logistics than it does the people within them.
But let’s talk about why, because it will be important as we go through the rest of this series.
Cerebral sci-fi is largely driven by a play at the audience’s curiosity. You introduce lingering questions, you explore them, and you make grand, opulent ideas that they can fall into with ponderous space and glee. This is what a lot of hard-core sci-fi fans like. The problem is that general audiences prefer narrative propulsion and clarity; that’s just how we watch things, dramatically speaking. So, often times, the solution is to bridge these two tactics by having our character’s journey be our guide into that ponderous element. But to do that, we need to have genuine clarity about where the character’s mind is at, why they’re behaving the way they are, and how this will carry the audience through all the unfamiliar details. This is the most crucial thing about sci-fi storytelling, especially when the characters are getting “lost” themselves. As much as I’m critical of certain thematic takes within it, Black Mirror is very, very good at this, and that’s why a ton of people enjoy it. If we’re sitting around on our heels as an audience, just watching someone behave and not understanding them, we’ll generally check out.
There’s a seemingly big moment in this episode when George cracks a smile and says, “I know what’s going on!” but that makes precisely one of us. Heck, it takes like another ten minutes of wheel-spinning to get to the “what” he thinks he knows (and even then, it’s barely articulated). That wishy-washy foundation plagues this episode, and as I’ll get into with later recaps, it’s going to plague a bunch of episodes of Electric Dreams going forward.
There’s also some stunning inconsistencies. When the nature of the narrative “switches” to give Sarah the good life, now having gotten the bad guys, she bemoans this and yells, “My life’s too perfect!” even though just a day ago she suffered from crippling trauma. We know that “getting the bad guys” doesn’t actually do shit for recovering from trauma. These things really matter. Especially when they don’t matter to the characters, for some reason.
But in the end, Ronald D. Moore is too smart not to have some kind of last-ditch save planned in his script. The episode ends with a patented “gotcha” moment, where Sarah ends up staying within George’s life, figuring it must be real because she couldn’t possibly have a “happy ever after” ending for herself. We then finally snap forward in time and realize, yes, Sarah was very real and she has just trapped herself in a “fantasy,” a guilt-ridden hell of her own design.
It’s a gutting notion. But it’s one that would have been all the more gutting had the episode actually tackled it head-on. Instead, by spending most of its run time pushing us away from the characters and getting narratively lost, “Real Life” suffers tremendously. And trust me, this should play like a gangbusters. Not being able to let go of guilt is something that haunts me, and I’ll get choked up over the very presence of the idea in most cinema. But that’s the thing about gotcha endings: They’re too little and too late if the episode doesn’t connect with us on the dramatic level first. When we get lost in the cerebral fun and games, we forget that the The Twilight Zone was so good at transcending the scare tactics of the gotcha moment precisely because it was so good at building the reality for its characters along the way. And that’s why we were haunted.
But what “Real Life” lacks is a reality for the audience.