“What if a new piece of tech could tell you who your soulmate is?” isn’t exactly fresh territory for science fiction. The idea that love could (should?) boil down to a science is an appealing, if unnerving, fantasy. “Soulmates,” the latest iteration of this concept, doesn’t work too hard to explain how such a game-changing technology became possible in its near future world. Instead, it imagines what the arrival of a foolproof soulmate “test” would do to the shift people’s perspectives on what “true love” means, challenge those already in relationships and make the world an irrevocably different place. From co-creators Brett Goldstein (“Ted Lasso”) and Will Bridges (writer of “Black Mirror” episode “U.S.S. Callister”), each of the six episodes focuses on an entirely different story and set of relationships. The chapters that work best, by a mile, are the ones that remain as firmly grounded in reality as a futuristic series can.
Take the first episode. “Watershed” stars Sarah Snook (“Succession”) and Kingsley Ben-Adir (“High Fidelity”) as Nikki and Franklin, a couple that’s been married since they met in college and quickly — perhaps too quickly — became each other’s everything. 15 years later, they’re living in a world in which they have to go to a new soulmate wedding every weekend, Nikki finds herself helplessly furious at the fact that her stable marriage has become a relic. She was happy, she thinks. But now, as seemingly everyone around her starts taking the test and finding their ideal partner, she can’t be so sure. The ensuing hour, anchored by a terrific Snook performance, is painful and revealing, finding pockets of devastating insight tucked away in the dark corners neither Nikki nor Franklin have addressed in years. The soulmate test is the instigator, but the intimate drama of them poking the tender bruise of their marriage is as real as it gets.
From there, “Soulmates” gets more lost in the weeds of its ambition. Three chapters — “The Lovers,” “Break on Through” and “The (Power) Ballad of Caitlin Jones” — jump to the extreme end of the storytelling spectrum. Two imagine how women trampled by men might use the soulmate test in order to gain more agency, but without much subtlety or insight beyond “sometimes, men are bad.” Aiming for some combination of “Black Mirror” and “The Leftovers,” these episodes instead feel a little too impressed with their own daring to Go There. Unlike “Watershed,” they have a much harder time finding more nuanced humanity within their heightened premises. And like “Watershed,” the remaining two episodes — “Little Adventures” and “Layover” — are far more successful for leaning on recognizable relationship dynamics and the chemistry between the actors portraying them.
“Little Adventures” explores the already nebulous world of online dating and open relationships which, yes, both still exist in this world brimming over with paired-up soulmates. (This, out of anything in this series, feels real; the last thing to exist after this wasted world finally disintegrates will be some bro’s Tinder profile of gym selfies.) Perfectly happy in their marriage, which allows both of them room to have “little adventures” as long as they only last one night, Libby (Laia Costa) and Adam (Shamier Anderson) get a jolt when Libby’s soulmate turns up — and, despite her always identifying as straight beforehand, is a woman. The complex give and take between Libby, Adam and Miranda (Georgina Campbell) takes all their wants and needs seriously, and the ways in which they resolve their conflicts proves a refreshing surprise.
“Layover” also gets a lot of mileage out of trusting the natural spark between its leads. It follows Mateo (Bill Skarsgård) and Jonah (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) as they race through Mexico to find Mateo’s stolen passport so he can get on an early flight the next day to meet his soulmate, a handsome finance advisor who promises a stable life of normalcy that Mateo may or may not actually want. The episode, written by Evan Placey, doesn’t even need its central high stakes chase (nor the frankly stereotypical depiction of Mexico as a backdrop). Skarsgård and Stewart-Jarrett are so charming together as two wayward souls finding each other that they could easily fuel an entire romantic comedy film all their own.
That kind of chemistry is what our cultural obsession with soulmates comes down to, in the end. The idea that there might be someone out there uniquely suited to get your heart racing is what it’s all about. There’s not much need to twist the concept much harder than that.
“Soulmates” premieres Monday, October 5th at 10 pm on AMC.