Reverie is full of near-future whizbangery like Minority Report-esque tablets. © NBC
VIRTUAL REALITY HAS never been a subtle technology—and the same goes for its treatment in popular culture.
When VR jumped its sci-fi firewall to sweep through Hollywood in the 1990s, it was a thing of maximalist, fantastic promise: brushed steel headsets and space-age gloves on the outside, swirly colors and stylized hacker dreams on the inside. Think Keanu Reeves playing virtual cat-and-mouse with the yakuza in Johnny Mnemonic, or Michael Douglas pulling off corporate espionage in the world's most grandiose database in the wow-did-that-age-terribly, quasi-erotic thriller Disclosure.
After a time, VR even showed up on four-quadrant TV like Murder She Wrote and Mad About You, a perfect symbol of fantasy and the future. Eventually, though, the future proved to be so far away that the fantasy withered, and VR took its place alongside Pogs and gratuitously transparent beveragesas a craze that was doomed never to see the next millennium. Except that's not exactly what happened. VR staged a comeback, becoming something that people could actually do, not just dream about—and something that lived again in pitch meetings and development pipelines.
So now, more than 20 years later, VR is coming back to screens. It's still a symbol of the future, and it's still the realm of fantasy. But in two new shows, VR's treatment suggests that society may not have the same appetite for those things as it once did.
Kiss Me First, which hits Netflix today after a run on British television earlier this year, started its life as a YA novel, albeit one that had nothing to do with VR. Leila (Tallulah Haddon), a young woman whose mother has just died, spends much of her time fighting with friends in Azana, an large-scale VR game where she's known as "Shadowfax." Soon, beckoned by another player named Mania (Simona Brown), she stumbles upon a world inside the world; Mania's friend Adrian (Matthew Beard) has hacked Azana to carve out a hidden paradise. The angsty misfits who congregate there call it "Red Pill," a Matrixreference that might be resonant if grosser corners of the internet hadn't already tainted it.
Not only has Adrian cobbled together neckbands that allow Red Pillers to feel physical pain in VR, but Leila suspects that he's using his charisma—which seems to revolve around a preternaturally velvety voice and tucked-in sweaters—to seduce them into making perilous real-life decisions. As she navigates a lurching friendship with Mania in the real-world, where she's actually named Tess, Leila has to validate her suspicions and find a way to put an end to Adrian's psychological puppeteering.
Brooding and tense, Kiss Me First is one of Netflix's most accomplished YA titles—which makes its baffling vision of virtual reality all the more disappointing. The Azana sequences provide a gleaming counterweight to the show's grim outer-London exteriors, but they seem to be rooted in a complete misapprehension of how this might look on the outside. In Azana, Shadowfax and the other Red Pillers soar, swim, and run; cry, laugh, and commiserate. In real life, though, they sit motionless in front of their computers, neckbands cinched tight and their hands on joysticks, brains and bodies completely out of sync. It's VR as imagined by a concerned parent, alienating and still.
At least Reverie, another new show in the midst of its debut season on NBC, avoids the burden of visualizing VR in action by doing away with headsets entirely. In the show, a company named Onira-Tech has created an injectable brain-computer interface that allows customers to launch into custom-built "reveries," simulations that exists only in their brain. There's just one problem: People are getting stuck in their reveries and going into comas, and Onira-Tech has its bottom line to worry about. Cue Mara Kint (Sarah Shahi), a onetime hostage negotiator who comes on board to help draw people out of their reveries.
Structurally speaking Reverie is indistinguishable from any other case-of-the-week show on a broadcast network: There are two or three longer-arc mysteries that give people a reason to watch it in sequence; most of the exterior sequences happen on an obvious studio backlot; Dennis Haysbert is there, saying things like "if she so much as sneezes, I want to know about it!" Which is to say, if that kind of show is your thing, this is also a thing like those other things.
But despite a lot of near-future whizbangery—Onira-Tech's headquarters is blanketed with a proprietary conversational AI, and people carry tablets that look dug out of the Minority Report prop closet—the show's conception of VR is straight out of a chain letter you got from that one uncle who wishes you Happy Birthday on Facebook by capslocking it on your friend's vacation photo. If it helps, you can imagine him saying, "yeah, but if VR is any good, won't people just stay in there forever?" On second thought, you don't need to; you can just imagine Mara Kint saying it to one reverie-bound sap, as she does in the third episode, "In here you get to be who you want, you get do what you want. And that's very powerful. But you're paying for it with your life."
Really, though, the fact VR is a demon and a punchline makes perfect sense. When Johnny Mnemonic and Disclosure came around, the internet was just becoming widely accessible. There was no social media, no real-time communication—and none of the venalities that those innovations helped breed. Computers felt like magic, and VR was like computers multiplied by Christmas. But now? When computers are chaos and privacy is a myth and our emotions have become as hackable as our data? It's little wonder that pop culture sees in VR a dystopia everyone can agree on.