The problem with Love, Death & Robots

Netflix’s new sci-fi anthology series Love, Death + Robots features a hefty helping of death, a slightly smaller serving of robots and a very light sprinkling of love. Also featuring on this proverbial plate is a big lump of mediocre writing, seasoned with spoonfuls of gratuitous sex and nudity and a garnish of casual sexism. This mess may be hard to swallow, but hey, at least the cool visuals make it look tasty!

The premise of David Fincher and Tim Miller’s new show is compelling: 18 short episodes (under 20 minutes long), most based on existing short stories and bringing together technology, space, magic, cyborgs and monsters as well as sentient yoghurt, Hitler-related time paradoxes and a tiny civilisation living inside a freezer. With some fun ideas and big names on board, the series promised a lot. Sadly, however, it doesn’t live up to its potential, leaving Samira Wiley’s cameo and the cool art styles as its only redeeming features.

“While the aesthetics are neat, they don’t make up for what the series lacks in the writing department”

As each episode was animated by a different crew from all over the world, most use different stylised animations, while others use a realistic video game art style which is, at times, so hyper-realistic that it takes a moment to realise they’re not human actors. With just a smidge of the uncanny valley, this aesthetic succeeds in being thematically consistent with a show where robots, simulations and monsters often lurk behind humanoid appearances. The Witness stands out as one of the most aesthetically impressive episodes, featuring a glitchy cyberpunk city which brings to mind Blade Runner’s Los Angeles. Good Hunting’s steampunk Hong Kong complete with automatons and airships also deserves a mention for its beautiful visuals, as does the colourful stylised art of Zima Blue.

While the aesthetics are neat, they don’t make up for what the series lacks in the writing department. The dialogue ranges from unexceptional to cringeworthy, throwing swear words around like a thirteen-year-old just out of their parents’ earshot. The swearing isn’t the only aspect that feels immature; the majority of the episodes feature nudity and sex in a manner that feels over the top and gratuitous. In episodes this short every second counts, yet an unreasonable amount of time is dedicated to sexualised nudity. Beyond The Aquila Rift would otherwise be a decent episode if it didn’t feature a weirdly long sex scene which adds nothing to the plot past the first few seconds. Then, The Witness includes a striptease that lasts a whole minute, which is an unforgivable waste of screentime in an episode that only lasts ten minutes total (if you disregard the titles and credits). It’s not that nudity and sex don’t have a place in television, it’s just that the sheer amount of screen time dedicated to skinny, perky-breasted animated women feels unnecessary and even a bit creepy, especially when rape and violence against women is a theme of multiple episodes.

Even when the female characters are permitted to keep their clothes on, some episodes are brimming with casual sexism. Shapeshifters, a story about two werewolf marines deployed in Afghanistan bizarrely opens with one of the protagonists vulgarly describing a sex dream about the other’s sister. It’s probably supposed to show the banter in their friendship, but it comes across as the sort of locker room talk that has faced scrutiny as part of the #MeToo movement. We’re clearly supposed to sympathise with this character but instead he comes across as a sexist douchebag, diminishing the emotional impact of his death later in the episode.

A similar example of dodgy characterisation can be seen in Blindspot, an episode about a team of cyborgs hijacking a moving train. Kali, the sole female member of the team, is the victim of crude innuendos while her team members tell her to shut up and ignore her suggestions until they are repeated by a male companion. It’s a situation women suffer in the workplace time and time again, but wrapped up in a high-speed cyborg train-jacking heist as if that makes it okay. Again, these are the characters we are supposed to be rooting for but their casual sexism makes them hard to like. It’s the mark of a writer who either doesn’t know they are alienating audiences or simply doesn’t care.

Admittedly, some of the episodes do feature interesting female characters. Good Hunting ends with a sex worker taking revenge on the men who abused her, while Sonnie’s Edge similarly depicts a woman who was brutally gang-raped taking back control in the underground fighting pits. Even these somewhat tastelessly utilise rape as a surface-level plot point, a way for the writers to give their female characters unearned “depth” in the same thirteen-year-old-boy screaming “your mom” on Xbox Live kind of way consistent in the rest of the episodes’ writing.

“Hopefully the next instalment won’t feel like its gender politics and try-hard edgy dialogue are straight out of a mid-2000s game cutscene”

The best of the bunch is Lucky Thirteen, which features Samira Wiley as a plucky pilot in what is a much-needed breath of fresh air. Her voiceover and acting are full of the personality that many of the other characters lack, and at no point does she feel the need to take her kit off. Her story avoids the uncomfortable gender politics that make some of the other episodes painful to watch, making it an obvious standout despite doing the bare minimum.

The beauty of an anthology series like Love, Death & Robots is that there’s no need to watch every episode. The ones worth watching are Zima Blue, the story of a mysterious artist with a fixation on a particular shade of blue, and Lucky Thirteen, the episode that will convince you that Samira Wiley should have been cast in Star Wars. In general, the other episodes tend to feature interesting ideas and neat aesthetics but with their otherwise sub-par execution the series never quite lives up to its potential. Hopefully the next instalment won’t feel like its gender politics and try-hard edgy dialogue are straight out of a mid-2000s game cutscene.