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TV Review: Electric Dreams (Season 1, Episode 5)


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This week's episode of Electric Dreams is a tale of overlapping, contradicting, alternate realities. It is a condensed blockbuster thriller, with the star power to match.

In the first world, Anna Paquin plays Sarah, a futuristic cop chasing down the man responsible for the massacre of her colleagues a year before, from which she was the only survivor. As she grows tenser and struggles with everyday life, her wife offers her the use of a virtual reality device which allows her subconscious to imagine herself in another world.

When she wakes in the other reality in present day as George, a tech billionaire who has turned vigilante in the pursuit of his wife’s killer, many aspects of her life are seen in his, or vice versa. George, played by Terrence Howard, also has a sort of virtual reality headset, which he dons to then wake as Sarah in her own reality.

‘Real Life’ starts slow but gathers momentum, lurching so rapidly between worlds that very quickly the audience, alongside the characters, lose sight of what is real and what is an illusion. It might well be the best, and certainly the most unsettling and mesmerising instalment thus far in this anthology series.

As the question of which reality is ‘real’ grows more complex, beautifully threaded hints suggest they may both be, or neither, or either. It’s brilliantly lurching and disorientating, and a perfect balance of cerebral, philosophical inquiries set against very humane questions of self-awareness and self-worth.

It becomes apparent that Sarah’s PTSD and survivor's guilt lead to a desire for torment and punishment for what she sees to be a perfect life, with her beautiful wife and great apartment. Her life is so perfect, in fact, that she begins to convince herself that her life seems more like an old male fantasy than a reality, and thus questions her very existence.  

The episode puts across the idea that deep down, our fundamental yearning is to be punished for our sins, real or imagined. No one believes they truly deserve happiness; in everyday life this may translate as sabotaging opportunities and relationships, but in ‘Real Life’ it means trapping oneself in a virtual reality in which you are made to suffer. In the end, Sarah’s need for condemnation leads to a form of unwitting suicide, making for a heart-breaking and ground-shattering conclusion.  

The episode makes an asset of its use of clichés and well-used premise, including some meta shots at some of the set-up. It teases questions as to which of the worlds is the fantasy one, embracing certain science fiction stereotypes with wit in order to undermine the believability of each narrative, so that either could be VR.

Character depths are fully realised through the exposition of their motivations and histories, ensuring the audiences are invested in both realities and both characters, no matter which turns out to be true. The acting is fantastic and despite Howard and Paquin never sharing the screen, their dynamic chemistry still permeates.

Electric Dreams’ ‘Real Life’ is a clever and original story with a stellar cast, that holds at its core an unnervingly bleak message about self-sabotage, escapism and happiness.  

Electric Dreams airs on Sundays at 9pm on Channel 4.

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