Love, Death & Robots: brave new avant-garde?

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Netflix has just released another anthology series that will have to shine through the huge shadow Black Mirror cast on pop culture. I mean, every time there is something new about it, you can expect a CUB article about it, and I’m sure this will be a trend for the next shocking adult Netflix special, Love, Death & Robots.

Both of these shows are dark, shocking, and attempt to tell stories about human nature and technology. Love, Death & Robots even sports a similar flickering static logo before an episode that will remind anyone familiar with Black Mirror of that quiet, haunting loading circle.

Despite these similarities, LD&R doesn’t fail to do something new with the genre Netflix has created. It’s possible that I’m even doing the show a disservice by comparing it to Black Mirror, which some argue is on the decline… and I would agree. The first season treated technology as a solution for real human problems (see: Be Right Back, The Entire History of You, etc.) but was sceptical around whether technology could really solve them, eventually diluting into the mess that was Arkangel.

But to focus on the show at hand, Love, Death & Robots has a name so vague that anything goes. As long as it is futuristic and NSFW, the pitch will fit the bill. As a result, it explores a variety of important themes through beautifully crafted animation. In conversation with Tim and Jennifer Miller, creators and directors of the show, a Syfy writer asked how they maintained a baseline quality on a show with numerous storytellers and companies, and Jennifer responded:

“I think the nice thing too is that you’ve got the branding and the design methodology of slot machines, a sense of variety, right? You don’t know what you’re going to get at any given time. You got a little surprise. It’s unexpected. And I think that folded it all together in a nice, neat package. So when we talk about controlling it, I don’t know that controlling is the right word. Do you know what I mean? Organizing maybe.”

The first episode, Sonnie’s Edge, really sets off this branding, with a dark setting contrasted with beautiful neon accents and bright lighting on points of interests, such as a tank with a huge ‘beastie’ in it, and neon war paint for its pilot. It begins with a competition and a good amount of trash talk. While it appears, at first, an epic monster fighting episode, Sonnie’s Edge doesn’t shy away from depicting women’s experience with sexual violence. Without giving too much away, Sonnie’s opponent attempts to intimidate her by miming that she will be doing ‘down’ and in their subsequent fight, there is an obvious symbolic phallic stabbing.

The episode after this, Three Robots, picks another theme to deal with: human pride. With a polar opposite tone to Sonnie’s Edge, this episode features three goofy robots who, after humans are extinct, attempt to understand them as creatures. It’s equal parts funny and humbling as they try to understand the human obsession with cats; the episode makes strange to us the taken-for-granted things we think of as universal, which heavily reminded me of Duchamp’s avant-garde sculpture, ‘the Fountain’ which puts a new perspective on a simple toilet to make it look like art simply by putting it in an exhibition. The episode by no means shies away from extending this to our view of climate change:

“It was their own hubris that ended their reign, their belief that they were the pinnacle of creation that caused them to poison the water, kill the land, and choke the sky”

It is perhaps a little too on the nose that the robots discuss our tendency to distract ourselves with things like cats.

Love, Death & Robots may be a pioneer in a new age avant-garde – experimental and attempting to bridge the gap between art in life in order to somehow make sense of the world. I would go so far as to argue that The Witness is one of the strongest episodes in terms of communicating messages through art. In it, a woman who happens to be a sex worker has witnessed a murder and is chased by the killer after he noticed that she witnessed it. At one point, she thinks she has escaped his pursuit and performs a sex show as per usual, only to find him in the audience. In her scramble to escape him, she attempts to shake her boss awake only to find him dazed from drugs; she rapidly opens three of his draws, the first chock full of pills, the second stuffed with sex toys, and in the last… a gun. Sex work is a dangerous game.

This episode expertly says more than it does through such environmental storytelling. The witness continues to run, this time through the urban metropolis big and winding enough to be a maze. Yet, through this huge city, nobody is around to help her. As she runs, the murderer continually yells, “let’s just talk!” but understandably, she is too frightened to stop. The whole episode is riddled with failures in communication.

Love, Death & Robots certainly beams through Black Mirror’s shadow despite being called a ‘show for edgelords’. It is certainly edgy, but to disregard everything the show attempts to say and do with this edgy packaging is just another example of human pride. There are still 15 more episodes, and I would highly recommend that you watch them!

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