Can Netflix's 'Love, Death + Robots' Re-Program Our Expectations As Viewers?
Love, Death + Robots is a thrilling experiment. It’s a passion project from creator Tim Miller (Deadpool) and executive producer David Fincher (Mindhunters, and… a bunch of movies you already know and love): an anthology of science fiction/fantasy short stories brought to life with cutting edge animation. The runtimes vary, with some episodes only lasting a handful of minutes, and the animation styles run the gamut from overtly “cartoony” to “here lies the uncanny valley.” The tone hits everything from quirky humor to darkest horror. The only things that are consistent about this series are that it’s definitely not for kids, and you’ve probably never seen anything quite like it.
Oh, sure, parts of it are bound to remind you of something. Pixar shorts, or The Animatrix, or some of the best video games you’ve played in recent years (one episode, “The Secret War,” looked a lot like Playstation’s gorgeous “Horizon Zero Dawn” — only without the robo-dinos). But the unique format — the very concept of the show — is the linchpin to this entire endeavor. And it’s something that, by it’s very design, is paradoxically as limiting as it is expansive.
Audiences are no strangers to anthology series. We’re getting comfortable with shows that change plots and characters every season (American Horror Story, Fargo) — but usually there’s some connective thematic tissue present, if nothing else. Shows like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits might be a better point of comparison, spinning out intelligent, self-contained “what if?” stories each week. But the episodes were constructed to fill a given time slot, and given a familiar structure. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Not so with Love, Death + Robots. I previewed 6 of the episodes at SXSW, in a screening that ended with a Q&A with Miller and Fincher, and in some ways I wish I’d heard their discussion before watching the show. Tim runs his own animation studio, Blur, and they produced several of the episodes — but they also shopped episodes out to other studios around the world, to talented animators who are eager to show off their skills but “don’t want to do talking animal movies.” But giving animators an interesting platform is only part of the mission, and is arguably less important than giving short stories a platform, since this show was born from a deep love of short stories. Only 2 of the 18 stories are original submissions — the rest were found in existing anthologies, which is why you’ll likely recognize several of the authors in the credits (three episodes are based on John Scalzi works). Miller and Fincher didn’t always agree on which stories to choose, but they settled on an eclectic mix with something to satisfy every taste.
Of course, that also means that this is a show all about picking favorites. It’s hit or miss, depending on your aesthetic tastes. Maybe you like weird little trifles about world-dominating yogurt, or alternate timelines exploring different weird ways Hitler could have died and how each possibility would have impacted our history (one of which ended with Putin being the first man on the moon). Maybe you like serious tales of revenge, or survival, or mind-bending works that challenge our perception. Some feel wholly complete, while others are nothing more than a riff on a captivating idea. That inherent diversity is the beauty of the short story as a piece of literature — it’s a catch-all for anything and everything, marked by a glorious freedom to explore and take risks. And yet, so often short stories are overlooked or dismissed, as if they are nothing more than thought exercises an author churns out while waiting for their next idea for a novel to strike.
I happen to love short stories. Some of my favorite books are collections of short stories. But within those books, there are always tales I prefer and tales I forget. In that way, Love, Death + Robots is kind of the perfect experiment for bringing those stories to life. It doesn’t just use them for material, it recreates the feeling of consuming them as an audience. The episodes, if you could call them that, aren’t numbered and are essentially randomized on the platform. You can dip in and out of the season at will. There is no set viewing order. It is almost aggressively not television at all — which made it even more interesting to hear Miller and Fincher talk about how they arrived at Netflix after being turned down so many times by movie studios. I can’t imagine this as a movie, after seeing it this way. But it also means that if readers don’t always know how to embrace the form of the short story, viewers will be even less prepared to embrace this show. It flies in the face of how we consume entertainment, even in an era where we binge and series don’t have any consistent run times or episode counts.
Add to that the fact that the audience has to be interested in adult cartoons (the series is NSFW for gore and nudity and pretty much any other “adult theme”), and the target narrows even further. In the end, I can tell you that I loved some of the episodes, was intrigued by others, and left lukewarm by the rest. And what I loved probably won’t be the same as what you will, and that’s OK. That’s kind of the point, actually! This is a frustrating, fascinating, imperfect show, and while I can’t say I enjoyed completely, I can say that I respect it. It takes a big swing, and I’m glad that it exists to challenge audiences and push the boundaries of entertainment even further. I hope it gets another season, and that they select an even broader range of source material (including more stories from female authors). I hope people give it a chance, and compare notes on what they enjoyed and what they didn’t. I hope it sparks conversation.
And I hope it gets people reading, too.
Header Image Source: Netflix
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