There’s an important distinction to be made between mature television and television that wants to appear mature. The latter tends to have a fairly immature grasp of its subject material (and that subject material tends to be more nudity and violence than you can shake a stick at). It’s gory and angsty and full of swear words, not because it knows what it wants to be, but because its creator thinks that’s what you have to do to be cool. Genuinely mature media can be crass and a little over the top, but in the best examples you have a clear idea of why it’s doing what it is and, moreover, it doesn’t feel the need to be all nudity and violence all of the time.
Nothing in recent years has flip-flopped back and forth between these two versions of ‘mature’ quite as drastically as Love. Death. Robots., a new Netflix anthology series that, unsurprisingly, focuses on violence, sex and science fiction. The concept was put together by Tim Miller, but each of the 18 short films were made by a different team, in a different world and with a different art styles for every installment. So there’s a lot of variety here, at least. Yet, in spite of that, a worrying portion of the episodes fit into that disappointingly immature style of mature content. Lots of half-naked women, blood, guts, and a disgusting amount of neon graffiti. The first and third episodes especially are like a Suicide Squad fever dream. They might all have different art styles, but a bunch of these feel like they were designed by the same 13-year-old boy. Namely, a 13-year-old boy whose irresponsible father recently let him watch South Park and 300 for the first time. The problem isn’t that South Park is bad inspiration, it’s the juvenile attitude towards it. Crude and seemingly immature comedies like that can be astonishingly clever at times, but an immature audience is just there for the crudeness.
It feels like many entries in Love. Death. Robots. were made by that one-track mind. Which makes a huge amount of these episodes difficult to talk about, because one could hardly even consider them stories. They’re just anecdotes or ideas, wrapped in a ridiculous aesthetic and nothing more. Some good ideas are ruined by a need to plaster cartoon breasts everywhere. “Beyond the Aquila Rift,” by far the most visually stunning installment (with one of the more interesting ideas), is brought down by an unnecessary sex scene halfway through. Even episodes that aren’t so childish have their potential squandered by lackluster plotlines, bad acting, or even just uninteresting ideas.
But that’s the thing about an anthology series: it’s always a mixed bag. And even this collection (which at times feels like a Zack Snyder version of Black Mirror) has some genuinely wonderful ideas, so I’m going to talk about the episodes that excited me.
“Sucker of Souls”
This one manages to walk the line between mature and immature in a way that makes it more fun than insufferable. An old scientist and a mercenary are traversing an old dungeon in search of something called an Impaler. To reveal what that Impaler really is (and what the dungeon truly is) would spoil a surprise that I truly want you to experience, but it’s a neat little twist. It’s also surprisingly funny. Big fan.
Similar to Ghost in the Shell on the surface, but set in a steampunk imperialist China with a healthy dose of magic, machinery, mythology and revenge. Perhaps a bit too voyeuristic for the subject matter it deals with, but it’s a great inversion of the usual trope of an enticing female spirit.
“When the Yogurt Took Over”
The shortest and silliest installment of the series, but also one of the most charming. The animation style merges that silliness with a certain darkness which works perfectly with the premise. Yes, the idea sounds silly at first, but there’s something delightfully threatening about it all the same.
The world has been dead for a long time. Its only remaining inhabitants are the titular three robots and… a cat. A genuinely humorous look at how ridiculous we are, but without the snark that some other creators might bring to it. It’s not as profound as some other episodes, but it’s good fun. While I’m talking about this one I’d just like to make the observation that there are a lot of cats in this series. Like, there are a lot of cats.
Easily the greatest short film of the bunch. Possibly the best thing Netflix has ever given us. I want a whole series about this concept. It’s just farmers protecting their farms from pests. But the pests are aliens. And they use giant robots. Sounds like fun, right? Well, it gets even better. These farmers are some of the best characters ever put on screen. Even in the short amount of time, this episode has to show you this world, you fall in love with them very quickly and you can’t help but root for them. Even the promising entries in the series don’t have enough time to make you really care about their worlds, just make you intrigued by them. But “Suits” packs an entire emotional journey and satisfying payoff into its 17-minute runtime. It’s the only one that left me wanting more, even though it was a complete journey all by itself. If you only watch one installment of Love. Death. Robots., make sure it’s this one. Easily the cream of the crop and one of the most promising animations I’ve ever seen.