There is a lot of talent on display both in front of and behind the camera on Amazon’s new anthology series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, and the idea of creating an anthology series inspired by Phillip K. Dick’s work is a strong one. However, those hoping to find a suitable series to fill that hole left in your souls after finishing Black Mirror will be sorely disappointed with this series, where the best episodes aren’t as good as the worst episodes of the Charlie Brooker series. While Black Mirror is like a collection of short stories written on a theme by an author who excels at this subject material, Electric Dreams feels more like a collection of the inferior short stories that a disparate set of authors decided to contribute to the series because they weren’t good enough to stand on their own.
It’s not a complete waste — there are a few poignant moments and a surprise or two among the ten episodes — but for the most part, the episodes play like 50-minute set ups for twist endings that can be seen from a mile away.
Here’s a ranking of each of the ten episodes, from best to worst:
1. “The Commuter,” written by Jack Thorne, directed by Tom Harper, and starring Timothy Spall.
Timothy Spall plays Ed Jacobson, a commuter rail worker who has a son frequently in trouble with the law and who makes Ed’s life a living hell. One day, a young woman buys a ticket on a train for a non-existent destination called “Macon Heights.” Ed goes out to investigate Macon Heights and discovers that it’s an idyllic little community where everyone’s traumas are wiped away, but in losing those traumas, the source of those traumas are also removed from their lives. It’s a fairly predictable story, but thanks to Jack Thorne’s deft direction and Spall’s heartbreaking performance, the episode doesn’t need to rely on the twist to be effective. There’s a lot of pathos in this episode, which asks the question: Would you rather have a troubled child who causes you endless grief or no child at all? (Score: 7.5 out of 10)
2. “Autofac” directed by Peter Horton written by Travis Beacham, and starring Juno Temple and Janelle Monáe
Set in a post-apocalyptic world run by an automated corporate manufactory, Juno Temple plays Emily Zabriskie, the leader of a small resistance group that rejects the goods provided by the environment-killing factories. When a very human-like android (Janelle Monáe) is sent out to investigate the community, they endeavor to use the android to infiltrate the factory and destroy it from the inside. Temple and Monáe turn in strong performances, but this episode relies heavily on the big twist ending, and it’s the only episode of the ten where I didn’t see the twist coming. It takes a while for the episode to gain momentum, but once it does, there are a few surprises in store. (Score: 7 out of 10)
3. “Safe and Sound” directed by Alan Taylor, written by Kalen Egan and Travis Sentell, and starring Maura Tierney, Martin Donovan, and Annalise Basso.
In a United States divided into two countries — where the East has completely handed its safety and security over to technology and a West where high-tech security is rejected — a representative (Tierney) from the West moves with her daughter into the East to conduct negotiations between the two sides. However, when the daughter (Basso) incorporates a piece of Eastern high-tech security into her life, things go awry. This episode is predictable but also immensely chilling in the way that the owners of high-tech security manufacture fear in order to convince their citizenry of the necessity of their products. This, more than any other, feels like a Black Mirror episode, if only because it often doesn’t feel like we’re very far away from the reality depicted within. (Score: 6.5 out of 10)
4. “Kill All Others” written and directed by Dee Rees, and starring Mel Rodriguez, Vera Farmiga, and Sarah Baker.
This one has a similar wag-the-dog quality as “Safe and Sound.” It sees a powerful politician slipping a subliminal message — “Kill All Others” — into the media, and those who rebel or speak out against that message quickly find themselves as the “others.” It’s predictable, and the premise is not that interesting, but the performances are fantastic and it’s a well executed episode that manages to create a lot of suspense despite knowing the contours of the outcome. (Score: 6.5 out of 10)
5. “Real Life” directed by Jeffrey Reiner, written by Ronald Moore, and starring Rachelle Lefevre, Anna Paquin, and Terrence Howard.
There’s nothing original about the idea of this episode, but the question it asks is intriguing. It reminds me a lot of the NBC procedural Awake about a cop in a bad traffic accident. In one reality, his wife died. But when he goes to sleep, we wakes up in another reality where his son died in the car accident. He has no idea which reality is real. Here, a person addicted to a virtual reality program has no idea if he/she is a lesbian supercop in the future, with an amazing life played by Anna Paquin, or a man in the present played by Terrence Howard, who is miserable and whose wife has died. This person has to pull the plug on one of those realities, and if he or she chooses to end the reality that is real, he or she will die in real life. Which one is “real life”? The amazing life or the miserable one? I wasn’t sure of anything except the person would eventually unplug the wrong life, but the reasoning behind that decision is intriguing. (Score: 6 out of 10)
6. “Human Is” directed by Francesca Gregorini, written by Jessica Mecklenburg, and starring Bryan Cranston and Essie Davis.
This episode is woefully predictable but remains watchable because of the presence of Bryan Cranston (who also exec produces the series). It’s about a military hero named Colonel Silas Herrick (Cranston) who is terrible to his wife until he goes to the planet of Rexor IV to retrieve a substance needed to process the Earth’s atmosphere. While in Rexor IV, he is attacked and it is initially believed that he is killed. However, he somehow survives, and when he returns, he’s a completely changed man: A kind and loving husband. The question that gets posed to his wife is: Is this the same man, and if it’s not, does it matter? He’s a much better person even if his body has been taken over by an alien. The episode tries to sow seeds of doubt into the viewer about whether Colonel Silas Herrick is human or alien, but it’s not very effective in doing so. The reveal is predictable, but the episode is marginally entertaining all the same. (Score: 5.5 out of 10)
7. “Impossible Planet” written and directed by David Farr, and starring Geraldine Chaplin, Benedict Wong, and Jack Reynor.
I actually wanted to like this one because it’s sweet, but it’s also nonsensical. Two men (Reynor and Wong) who give tours of of other planets and solar systems are paid by a 342-year-old woman, who is about to die, to take her to Earth, which is now a dead planet. The men agree for the money, and while the old woman’s robot servant believes they are taking advantage of the woman, the woman ends up falling for the Jack Reynor character, who bears a striking resemblance to her grandfather. It’s a lovely story, but not lovely enough to obscure the fact that it makes little sense and that it’s more than a little creepy and not in a good way. (Score: 4 out of 10)
8. “The Hood Maker” directed by Julian Jarrold, written by Matthew Graham, and starring Richard Madden and Holiday Granger.
This is the first episode of the Amazon series, and I strongly suggest that viewers skip it, at least initially, because it may put viewers completely off the series before they’ve sampled some of the better episodes. Grainger plays a telepath who works for the police in a future dystopia. Though ostracized by the rest of society, she develops a strong relationship with the police officer she’s partnered with (Madden), though that relationship is strained when she is finally able to access his thoughts. The question it ultimately (and lamely) poses is: Do you believe what’s in a person’s mind or in his heart? It’s a long and boring episode that ultimately answers a question no one is really that interested in. (Score: 3 out of 10)
9. “The Father Thing” written and directed by Michael Dinner and starring Greg Kinnear and Mireille Enos.
I think that Michael Dinner was going for something akin to Stranger Things, but this one is super lame. It’s about a boy who has a very close relationship with his father — they bond over camping and baseball — until a meteor shower arrives and his father starts exhibiting very strange behavior. Skip it. Don’t bother. It’s a terrible episode with extraordinarily little payoff. (Score: 2 out of 10)
10. “Crazy Diamond” directed by Marc Munden, written by Tony Grisoni, and starring Steve Buscemi
A nonsense episode and a complete waste of Steve Buscemi’s talents. I’d try to explain what it’s about, but it makes very little sense and is incredibly boring, to boot. A frustrating waste of time. (Score: 1 out of 10)