May 27, 2024


Science It Works

The Futuristic Stink of Amazon’s Science Fiction

Farts linger, far into the future. So suggests Solos, the latest sci-fi show on Amazon Prime. Even though its characters deal with everything from time travel to superbabies to memory theft, they still get gassy. No fewer than three times, Peg, played by Helen Mirren, talks about her old-lady toots. (All hail Queen Elizabeth Number, ahem, Two.) Elsewhere, Anthony Mackie’s Tom describes, in celebratory detail, his wife’s code-red stink bombs. Twice! Actually, make it thrice. Thieving the selfsame memory in the finale, the great Morgan Freeman rehashes the stench.

That Solos was made during a global pandemic, a time of endless sitting with ourselves and our smells, makes a certain olfactory sense. To watch it is to feel, if not seen, then sniffed. But as any gastroenterologist will tell you, excess gas usually points to a deeper issue, more chronic in nature. To diagnose it, then—this diegetic dyspepsia—a comprehensive examination of the patient must be performed.

Amazon has shat out science-fiction programming for years, and it ranges, on the smell-o-meter, from the merely obnoxious to the just plain noxious—a flatulence that fluctuates. Early on, the company mostly Philip K. Dick’d around, first with an adaptation of Man in the High Castle and then with Electric Dreams, an anthology series based on that author’s short stories. The former collapsed in due course, and the latter was never more than off-brand, harder-trying Black Mirror, but at least neither tried to speak to our bowels.

Throughout the week, WIRED is publishing a series of essays about the current state of streaming services. Read about Netflix losing its cool here.

With Solos, Amazon stoops to a condescending science fiction that’s just like us, farts and all. As in Electric Dreams, each episode is self-contained, but the show squanders any advantage that format has—as a playground for ideas—by focusing on the people. On their so-called “humanity,” as David Weil puts it. He’s the creator of Solos, and what he’s creating, he says, is “human connection.” Never mind that, to establish it, he resorts to awkward world-building, stagey melodramatics, and characters who are, in every way, full of shit.

Apologies for the potty mouth, but the fault lies with Amazon, whose science fiction practically overflows with bodily discharge. Enjoy the animated vomit, in Undone; in Upload, the dancing streams of computer-generated pee. Even the studio’s most artistic attempt at an adult drama, Tales From the Loop, occasionally finds its head in the toilet. A sort of Our Town of tomorrow that shifts its focus from one sad human (or robot) to another, the show truly plumbs the depths. In the ickiest scene, an older man goes number one, misses his target, and has to clean up the mess. The camera cuts to the stray yellow droplets and everything. Poor Jonathan Pryce, an actor of distinction, potential pissed away. When his character drops dead a while later, it seems less of health complications than of shame.

Shame, too, is what we the audience feel, in watching. As these fictional future humans connect with us by way of that most universal of processes, expulsion, our own stomachs begin to bubble and ache. Is that all we are? Grotty, leaky fleshbags, mucking up clean, utopian futures? To Amazon, no shit. Humans have urges and needs, and Amazon exists to fulfill them. In fact, if you keep watching, it’ll even show you how.