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TV Review: The One

26 April 2021
Appeared in BioNews 1092

'Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?' wrote Christopher Marlow in 1598. Since the ancient Greeks described the exquisite pain of instant passion through the metaphorical sting of Cupid's arrow, humans have embraced the notion of some magical alchemy that makes us fall helplessly for our one 'true' love.

Despite the messy reality of most relationships, the fantasy endures. Now, more than ever, the popularity of dating apps testifies to the need to find love proactively, in as little time as possible.

If only there was a fool proof app for finding true love. Well, this is where 'The One' app comes in. 'The One', currently available on Netflix, is set in an immediate future where DNA research leads to the possibility of matching people with their one true partner. A quick swab and a bit of lab work (cross-referenced within a dodgily acquired database) is all it takes.

But first, some exposition with no spoilers. A group of PhD students chance upon the discovery that they can use DNA to match potential partners. Rebecca Webb (Hannah Ware) is the one to make this happen, which she does by having a malfunctioning moral compass and no qualms about stealing a massive database from her kind, hard-working flatmate, Ben.  

Fast-forward to eighteen months later and Rebecca has developed a multi-billion pound business around an app to match users to their 'one'. She has gone from folksy, beer-drinking post-doc to secretive, glassy-eyed billionaire who will stop at nothing to protect her profits and preserve a veil of secrecy over the unsavoury origin of her story. That's a big character arc in eighteen months, and it's fair to say that Rebecca now spends a large proportion of her time being driven around in a massive SUV, like a gangland boss, whilst glaring icily into middle distance and looking very well put together.

Rebecca's problems now include a body, dredged out of the Thames, and a police investigation, led by detective Kate Saunders (Zoë Tapper). Further to this there is the work of a reporter, who is taking an interest in the ethics of Rebecca's company, and who has a wife obsessed with testing her happy and solid marriage in a variety of irritating ways, most of which you can easily guess.

The slightly dystopian feel of the series is created with a light touch and is present in the language rather than in the visual aesthetic. People say things like 'I've been matched', meaning that they have either used the app to find their soulmate, or they have been found themselves. Despite the app's promise of everlasting happiness with one's true love, what seems to be piling up is devastation, as divorce rates soar due to people's curiosity being piqued by the promise of someone better, while the government threatens intervention to bring the app use under control.

The science is sketchy to put it mildly. Some of the big questions are hinted at: what if your 'one' dies prematurely – is there a spare 'one'? Or what if the age difference makes a relationship desperately unethical – after all, if DNA is the only source of information, it can't possibly include the kind of hard data we hope to see with our own eyes. It's a big world out there; how very convenient (and utterly preposterous) that one character's match is only at one degree of separation and living in the same district. The slight Hollyoaks vibe about some of the characters felt strange; are there no older people here, and if not, what have they done with them?

Despite a solid cast, it is difficult to feel anything for most of the characters. The character of Rebecca, for example, feels like a baddie without the charisma. Her rare moments of vulnerability are at odds with the calculated villainy she demonstrates at other times and fail to elicit the kind of sympathy that would sustain our interest in her character. Even allowing for the character's lack of warmth and unfeasibly rapid development from student to entrepreneur and arch-villain, the role should have been a gift.  

Many of the male characters are weak, or opportunistic. Only Tapper's decent investigative detective, Kate, felt like someone we could relate to.

The plot is driven primarily by the monetising power of personal data, which in itself could be enough to fascinate us over eight episodes, however, there was nothing profound enough to say that isn't currently being played out in real world scenarios with appalling consequences.

The potential of the science is unexplored and the bigger question, about how safe our data is in a world where the relationship between our innermost thoughts and the Internet are increasingly permeable (looking at you, Alexa), is ignored in favour of small-scale skirmishes that result in a lumpy and tedious narrative where it is difficult to care enough about most of the characters.

Perhaps 'The One' is a warning to accept the ups and downs of the analogue relationship, with its negotiations, adjustments and permanent 'work in progress' status – I suspect it cares neither way, but fills a few hours of viewing time if you are willing to accept it for what it is.

The One
Netflix |  12 March 2021
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