Virtually every episode of Charlie Brooker’s Netflix anthology series Black Mirror is an Atlantic cover story about how technology is either corrupting the populace or threatening the children. The episode “Nosedive” warns that the drive for social media likes will create a society of enforced saccharine smarm. “Arkangel” worries that advances in surveillance technology will enable mega helicopter parenting, leading repressed kids into meaningless lives of sex, drugs, and other mischief. Even the relatively upbeat “Hang the DJ” imagines a future where dating apps create and torture sentient AIs to test them for compatibility. In Brooker’s world, technology can transform even true love into something decadent and callous.
The new French Netflix series Osmosis initially looks like a Black Mirror knock-off. In line with “Hang the DJ,” it’s about a new technology that helps people locate their soulmates. The series’ trailer includes heavy, provocative, ominous questions in a Black Mirror-esque vein. “If science could guarantee true love, would you say yes?” But the initial two episodes provided for critical review turn out to be less about the dangers of new technologies, and more about the dangers of familiar old school bugaboos: ambition, insecurity, grief, and love. Osmosis isn’t focused on moral panic headlines, it’s focused on stories.
Paul (Hugo Becker) and Esther (Agathe Bonitzer) are the brother-and-sister team behind a new technology called Osmosis. Osmosis places nanorobots in a subject’s brain. Those robots read thoughts and emotions, cross-reference them with social media and other available information, and find the subject’s perfect soulmate. Osmosis is currently in test mode, and the first two episodes follow the people in the first trial as they’re introduced to their scientifically identified true loves.
Paul, who handles the business end of Osmosis, hypes the technology remorselessly. When he waxes eloquent, he sounds like he’s in a Black Mirror pitch meeting: This technology will change everything! It’ll alter what it means to be human!
But Osmosis’ actual plot suggests that people don’t fit so neatly into Paul’s algorithm. He may think the ability to find a soulmate will transform humanity irrevocably, but his sister disagrees. Esther, the tech genius behind Osmosis, is completely uninterested in romance. When she wants sex, she jumps into a virtual-reality simulation. She tells Paul she already has two soulmates who take up all her time — Paul himself and their vegetative, hospitalized mother. In fact, Esther hopes to use the Osmosis tech to revive her mother, just as three years earlier, she revived Paul from a similar state.
Esther isn’t the only one who doesn’t want to build her life around romantic love. One of the test subjects, Ana (Luna Silva), who is slightly heavy by television standards, is introduced as a fat girl desperate for love. This seems like a tiresome and insulting stereotype — except that it turns out she’s more interested in politics than love, and she’s participating in the trial for reasons of her own.
Osmosis and the Osmosis process both look like they’re about romance. But people aren’t defined by a simple, single narrative, even if it’s injected directly into their brains. Offered a simple, familiar romance plot, viewers may mentally expand it into something more suited to their own needs, from family melodrama to industrial espionage. No matter how advanced your future box, people will find a way to climb out of it.
By contrast, in Black Mirror’s “Hang the DJ,” the characters literally spend the whole episode in a computer-generated prison. They exist solely to test a technology they aren’t fully aware of. The episode’s entire plot centers on the way they’re pushed from relationship to relationship by a totalitarian dating app, which even catalogs and analyzes their resistance. That’s a very Black Mirror conceit. Even in the potentially happy ending, they’re utterly at the mercy of their tech, which makes our lives less authentic and less human.
Osmosis features a group who thinks the Osmosis tech will envelop users in a Black Mirror dystopia. But at least in the first two episodes, they appear to be the Luddite villains, as misguided in their pessimism as Paul is in his optimism. Technology in Osmosis doesn’t create a dystopia or a utopia in itself. It’s just a tool, and different people project different dreams and fears onto it, for better and worse.
For example, Osmosis user Lucas (Stephane Pitti) isn’t trying to find one true love, he just hopes the technology will help him embrace life with his lover, and stop cheating. “Antoine is my boyfriend. I love him, he loves me. It’s real,” he insists, even though the tech tells him something different. Lucas hopes Osmosis will give him answers, but he might as well try to solve his problems by typing “Should I break up with my boyfriend?” into Google. The device can provide him with potentially relevant information, but it can’t control his behavior, make his decisions, or solve personal problems he doesn’t fully understand.
That level of nuance and awareness makes Osmosis start out thoughtful and refreshing, though two episodes in, it’s difficult to tell whether it will expand on its insights, or squander them. There are some worrying signs. One of the test participants, Niels (Manoel Dupont) suffers from a sex addiction that is portrayed in a not especially thought-through way. Paul’s Osmosis-selected girlfriend gets kidnapped before viewers know much about her, in a transparent and clichéd bid to up his emotional angst. Agathe Bonitzer as Esther is brilliantly angular and intense, but it’s unclear whether the show’s creators realize that she’s a much, much more interesting character than Paul.
Even if Osmosis is a technology that never pans out, though, it points to a hopeful alternate science fiction five minutes in the future. The Black Mirror program — in which we perform thought experiments to scare ourselves about How Bad Things Have Gotten — can be hacked. We don’t always need to write the same headlines with the nanobots in our brains. Since the first primitive human picked up a rock to use as a tool, humans have lived with technology. But all our stories don’t have to therefore be about rocks. If we want, we can make a future that says something to us about our lives. Osmosis shows that we don’t need to hang the DJ, we can just change the tune.
All eight episodes of Osmosis launch on Netflix on Friday, March 29th.