Netflix’s latest sci-fi anthology, 18 episodes long Love, Death & Robots, is like a box of chocolates. Only the chocolates have been replaced with Harry Potter fame ‘Berti Bott’s Every Flavor Beans.’ Some of the episodes are mundane (like the Banana flavor or the Cherry flavor), some are creepy (earthworm, dirt or soap flavors) and some are outright gross (Rotten eggs or Earwax flavors). Even the animation styles are as different as chalk & cheese, some with a clear bent towards Korean styles of animation, while others following a more recognizable American styling.
But, this is where LD&R’s resemblance to the innocent worlds of Harry Potter and Forrest Gump ends. This series is heavily NSFW, and some episodes even NSFL (Not Safe for Life), there’s gratuitous sexual violence and enough gore to make most people feel queasy (I am personally a big fan of gore & violence, Takashi Miike & Park Chan-wook are up there in my list of favorite directors). And honestly, a lot of sexual violence comes across as misogynistic; it feels like the individual episodes directors put those scenes in there mainly for shock value, rather than artistic reasons. Picture a female character detailing their location in the universe using a fancy, interactive 3D map, done? Now tell me, why does she need to be topless, wearing just a thong? I guess you get the picture.
LD&R is a collection of 18 stand-alone stories, mostly based in the future. The stories cover varied topics, alien invasion, existence of free will, absurdist themes, and did I mention the needless sexually explicit nature? Some of the episodes are outright humorous, while also being a commentary on meme obsessed pop-culture of today. And not all of them are good, or even watchable. But that’s the good thing with anthologies, you don’t need to watch all the episodes (and also because I took the pain of watching all of them, you are welcome readers!). My favorites are Zima Blue (for its philosophical roots and a great ending), Helping Hand (flashbacks of Sandra Bullock “Gravity” and gore which, for a change, adds to the story) and Good Hunting (for its medieval China setting, based on a great short story by multiple Hugo Award winner Ken Liu, and an animation style that seamlessly blends steam-punk and far-eastern sensibilities). Special mention of Beyond the Aquila Rift for cleverly riding the Uncanny Valley and making a point while doing that.
This idea of a collection of stories, animated in different styles is not new. And it has definitely been done much better. The first 2 examples that come to mind are 2008 DC Comics masterpiece “Batman: Gotham Knight” and Wachowskis siblings Matrix based Animatrix. They were not devoid of violence or sexual overtones, but these elements added layers to the story, rather than distracting from them. That they had great source material to work with definitely made their job easier. LD&R, for lack of established universe and well knows silver screen characters, often feels shallow and hurried.
One of the redeeming features is the variable length of the episodes; some are as short as 5 minutes, while others follow the more traditional duration for an animated episode. This has been the downfall of many TV series, the need to churn out fixed length (22 minutes or 48 minutes) episodes because of fixed time slots network requirements. Sometimes the material is not enough and the episodes seem stretched (I am looking at you Star Trek: The Next Generation), while at other times the episodes are too dense (Rick & Morty has often been guilty of this). Video on Demand platforms like Netflix can break this mold, and I am surprised there are not more shows which break this code. LD&R breaks this code; it could have been great example of how freedom from time slots can allow the show runners to tell well paced, immersive stories.
Talking of show-runners, LD&R boasts of 2 of the most celebrated pop-culture icons of recent times. One is Tim Miller, director of Deadpool, the highest grossing R Rated film of all times, which has destroyed the myth that super-hero movies need to be PG 13 (even Nolan’s Dark Knight was rated PG13). The other show runner, David Fincher needs no introduction, he’s the brain behind thrillers like Fight Club, Zodiac, Gone Girl, among others. The fact that these directors chose not to get behind the camera or write a story, is probably another reason LD&R falls below expectations.
For all its promise of path-breaking story telling, melting pot of animation styles and philosophical motives, LD&R falls short in the most important aspect, a good story to tell. And no amount of male gaze driven sensuality or animated blood & guts can cover for that. I give the series 2 chirps.