Solos, Amazon Prime’s latest sci-fi anthology series, bills itself as a show that ponders what it means to be human in an increasingly atomised, technologically advanced world. From this vaguest of premises, it tells the stories of eight people across seven episodes, each set some time in the near future.
It also boasts one of the most distinguished casts ever assembled for television, including Oscar-winners Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren and Anne Hathaway. Except for the final instalment, the actors are largely isolated and effectively perform a half-hour monologue. Two things swiftly become apparent: that these are some of the finest performers working today, and that the material doesn’t quite match their talents.
The many worlds of Solos are underpinned by futuristic technologies, from extraordinary fertility treatments to memory transplants and time travel. Each episode starts with a question from Freeman in voice over, announcing a central theme. These are invariably the sort of thing you could slot into the trailer for a forgettable, mid 90s blockbuster: if you travel to the future, can you escape your past? Is the threat outside greater than the one within? How far would you go to find yourself again?
If these queries are intended to provoke some soul searching in the viewer, they don’t achieve it (though for the record, my own answers are no, no and anywhere but Surrey). More often than not, the episodes that follow them boil down to parables with simple lessons like “cherish your family” or “make your voice heard”.
Despite this, the cast is able to conjure some engrossing performances, and a couple of stories show more promise. Watching Peg (Mirren) reminisce about the one that got away on a journey through outer space, for instance, and Jenny (Constance Wu) give a tearful account of the worst day of her life is frequently heart-breaking.
The highlight of the series is Sasha’s (Uzo Aduba) story: 20 years after entering an idyllic “stay home” during a deadly pandemic, she doesn’t trust her virtual assistant’s assurances that the outside world is now safe. The many allusions to covid-19 are a mixed bag – sometimes they feel poignant, but at other times they seem like a cheap, cynical way to mine emotion from the audience.
There is thankfully levity among all this anguish, but too often Solos falls back on pop culture in-jokes that are sure to age like milk; a prolonged discussion of the Game of Thrones finale in Hathaway’s episode is a particular low point. It also displays a peculiar need to name-drop today’s technologies, as though attempting to draw a clear line between its universe and our own. We don’t even make it out of the first episode before Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant is mentioned, and investors should take note that while Zoom persists for many years into the future, TikTok will seemingly fall by the wayside.
Amid this jumble of contemporary references, it isn’t clear what point Solos wants to make about technology, if anything at all. Black Mirror, another tech-focused anthology show, has been criticised for the vagueness of its themes in the past (writer Danny Lavery memorably described it as “what if phones but too much?”), but at least it has always had compelling visuals and a darkly comic tone to fall back on. Solos has neither of these blessings.
We have never spent more time staring at screens than we have in the past year or so. Nor have we ever had so many TV shows to choose from. Solos is a slickly produced, star-studded series, but beyond its cast – and an ethereal score from composer Martin Phipps – it has nothing to offer that hasn’t already been said, and said better, by someone else.
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