Sitting at a table packed with his family members, a man recalls the chemistry he felt upon meeting the woman he’d soon marry. “It was undeniable,” he gushes; “I have never been happier,” his wife declares. This saccharine display will be familiar to anyone who’s scrolled through Instagram on Valentine’s Day, but the couple are the first success story of a different algorithm: the extraordinary “test” at the heart of AMC’s Soulmates. Each of the anthology show’s six episodes is set sometime in the near future, after the discovery of a “soul particle” leads to the creation of a scientific assessment that can match anyone with their, well, you know.
If this all sounds very Black Mirror, that may be because of the new show’s DNA: One of the Soulmates creators, William Bridges, won an Emmy for his work on the long-running British series. Along with his co-creator, Brett Goldstein, Bridges teases out the dystopian possibilities of Soulmates’ premise through vignettes that weave together horror, cult fiction, and even explorations of abuse. The best episodes of the series, which has already been renewed for a second season, are those that use its outlandish matchmaking test to highlight normal relationship obstacles. Chief among these is the belief, conscious or otherwise, that finding one’s perfect partner will solve all of life’s problems. Many of the characters aren’t just desperate for love; they also want reassurance that everything is going to be okay in the end.
Soulmates doesn’t address the pandemic, because it was written well before the coronavirus upended dating norms. But the characters’ fervent desire for certainty is especially resonant now. After all, the show enters a climate in which many Americans’ worries about the future are manifesting, in part, as shifts in their romantic patterns. In recent months, dating-app usage hasn’t just increased but also changed in tenor. The boredom-driven crush confessions of early quarantine have given way to a more urgent search for long-term partnership. Speaking about these changes, the psychotherapist Gail Atlas recently told The New York Times, “When we are afraid, we tend to want to get together.” Quarantine has created a wide rift between couples and the single friends who are annoyed by their displays of holed-up happiness. Isolation has deepened existing chasms in some relationships, at times leading to breakups. Everybody, it seems, is experiencing touch deprivation. Amid such ambient social anxiety, it can be disorienting—and perhaps strangely comforting—to watch a series that validates a common fear: that maybe things aren’t going to be fine, no matter whom you’re with.
Still, Soulmates isn’t exactly a cynical show. Though it’s skeptical about the mythic balm of predestined romantic love, the anthology insists that the choices we make and the way we treat other people do matter. The series is set shortly after the creation of the soul-mate test, so several of its characters are already in serious relationships, which places them in a unique quandary: Stay in the dark about their true match—or take the test, knowing it’s likely to point them to someone else. This dilemma gnaws at Nikki (played by Succession’s Sarah Snook), the protagonist of the first and best episode. She’s been with her college sweetheart, Franklin (Kingsley Ben-Adir), for 15 years, and they have two young children. They have no serious marital issues, but the newly minted soul mates around them exacerbate Nikki’s existing doubts about their compatibility. The warmth and pathos that Snook brings to her role remind viewers that Nikki isn’t simply chasing a shiny new object—she’s wrestling with how motherhood has changed her marriage and her belief in her own desirability.
For Nikki and the protagonists of the other five episodes, the arrival of the soul-mate test gives clarity to relationship doubts that might have otherwise gone unnamed or unaddressed. “I’m fine. We’re fine. Everything’s fine,” Nikki says in a fight with Franklin, after they attend yet another official-soul-mate wedding. Only later does she admit her deepest fear about their perfectly adequate marriage: “What if it’s not enough?” Soulmates acknowledges the intensity of such insecurities, even as it resists absolving characters whose search for comfort ends up hurting others. By putting a scientific spin on a dating landscape that’s already been gamified in the real world, the show forces its characters (and viewers) to contend with what’s lost when they fixate on perfection.
The series draws from a long line of romantic shows and films that reject the inherent goodness of finding one’s “other half”—a cultural concept that can be traced back as far as a speech given in Plato’s symposium. The playwright Aristophanes explained the plight that mankind suffered after threatening the gods, when Zeus cut men in two to humble them: “Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half.” The idea that everyone has a soul mate or “twin flame,” a kindred spirit who will change their life forever, has endured, informing volumes of love letters, poetry, religious teachings, and, of course, pop culture. In its interrogation of that widely held ideal, Soulmates joins works as disparate in form as the offbeat indie film 500 Days of Summer; the Lizzo pop song “Soulmate”; the John Marrs fantasy novel The One, which is set to become a Netflix series; and even an episode of the raucous animated comedy Rick and Morty.
The most obvious parallel to Soulmates, though, is a 2017 episode of Black Mirror. “Hang the DJ” opens with Amy (Georgina Campbell) and Frank (Joe Cole) on a first date and quickly reveals that they live in a world where everyone is technologically paired off and couples can find out their relationship’s expiration date if they both choose to do so at the same time. On Soulmates, as in “Hang the DJ,” romantic tension is just a proxy for larger questions about safety, security, and belonging. The Black Mirror episode isn’t subtle in its rebuke of tech-dependent modern dating habits, but Campbell and Cole’s rapport brings levity to otherwise fatalistic conversations. “Must have been mental before the system,” Amy comments at one point. “People had to do the whole relationship thing themselves, work out who they wanna be with.” Joe, her match for the next 12 hours, concurs: “Option paralysis. So many choices, you end up not knowing which one you want.”
Campbell appears in one of Soulmates’ episodes too, making it hard not to recall her “Hang the DJ” character when watching. (That overlap also calls attention to the fact that Campbell plays Soulmates’ lone Black woman lead, and the series is rather white overall; the one episode set in Mexico, for example, really utilizes its local characters only to dramatize the chase at the center of the story.) In the new series, Campbell plays a woman whose test result challenges what she’s always believed about her own sexuality. For Black Mirror fans, Soulmates makes for predictably great companion (sorry) viewing, in part because of its unlikely endorsement of even fleeting connection.
Because the world—and the dating climate—feels so apocalyptic already, Soulmates is most riveting in its quiet moments. When the series gets bogged down in overly fanciful story lines about death and revenge, it loses the more subtle character studies that make its premise so relatable. But when Soulmates gives its characters room to simply stare at each other, it lets their chemistry—even the kind that’s not determined by “science”—really shine. In some scenes, characters ask earnest, probing questions that likely wouldn’t make it into breezy dating-app banter: If you weren’t here right now, what would you do? … Go on, I wanna hear. These interactions don’t offer fundamentally new conclusions about love, but they don’t have to. There’s something thrilling about watching two people fall for each other—and something especially heartening about watching them commit to the work of sustaining their bond.