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The current historical moment in which so many of us are still living in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic and in a state of existence where we have so little free time presents the perfect context for Tim Miller’s Love Death + Robots (with the support of executive producers, David Fincher, Jennifer Miller and Joshua Donen) offering a particularly deft vehicle for the exploration of humanity’s most pressing issues and problems. With episodes created by an all-star cast of writers and directors in succinctly crafted episodes of 6 to 21 minutes in length, this animated series serves as much more than an entertaining distraction from an unsettling world and what portends to be an ominous future.

At its most fundamental, the series offers a welcome contribution to the sci-fi genre that has long functioned to express the conscience of just world. Through a form few regard as ‘literary’ and that many dismiss as mere entertainment, sci-fi writers have been successful in subtly and subversively engaging readers with urgent social issues through the veil of fantastic worlds and in pursuit of a “deeper meaning” as one character says, pushing us “to look further, to the cosmos itself.” All through narratives that tend to revolve around a healthy skepticism of technology and suspicion of ideologies of progress.

Love Death + Robots follows the formula established in other iconic sci-fi anthology TV series from Tales of Tomorrow (1951-1953), Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) and The Outer Limits (1963-1965), to The Ray Bradbury Theater (1985-1992), Black Mirror (2011-present) and Electric Dreams (2017). In Miller’s take on this form, the shorter episode lengths are responsive to a contemporary world of instant gratification—largely driven by technology—that imparts a greater sense of urgency to stories that must get us to their core ideas with more speed and efficiency than is necessary in other story forms. Plus, who doesn’t want to turn on Netflix and chill every once in a while?

Hitting all the standard sci-fi tropes from space exploration, alien life forms, time travel and weird temporality, to the titular robots often entangled in dystopian and apocalyptic scenarios, a common theme of the series emerges as an intention to push viewers to think not just on the wonderous and astounding possibilities of the future, but also on the specter of the unknown. The kind of posture this produces is one that evokes feelings of profound unsettledness due to the series individual and cumulative pessimism and truly disturbing twists of plot often hinging on the whims and mistakes associated with human agency revealing our collective complicity in the show’s often distressing speculative scenarios and futures. 

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Although many episodes of Love Death + Robots, like its contemporary Black Mirror, deal with situations that are often bleak, if not altogether dreadful, an ample sprinkling of satire and ironic playfulness give the series a balance and relief that creates a sense of lightness and wonder despite the subject matter. Such an impression resounds even in the face of depictions of extreme destruction, violence, monstrosity and death, a quality that helps this series resist the kind of hopelessness and despair that can settle over one after watching episodes of Black Mirror such as, “Shut Up and Dance,” “Crocodile,” “White Christmas,” “Metalhead,” or “Smithereens”—ones I personally count among the best and most revealing of human weakness and folly in a series where gloom rules.

Miller’s playful, more humorous feel, an aesthetic honed through the irreverent comedic tone that typifies the Deadpool franchise, is underscored in the framing tales Three Robots and Three Robots: Exit Strategies from seasons one (2019) and three (2022), respectively.

The first of these episodes opens with an homage to the iconic apocalyptic scene from Terminator 2 in which a T-unit hunter-killer android, sans the artificial human skin, which, oh by the way, scientists have just succeeded in making a reality, crushes a human skull underfoot, plasma guns blazing overhead at scattering fighters representing the last gasps of human resistance. In directors’ Victor Maldonaldo’s and Alfredo Torres’ adaptation from a story by John Scalzi, after the crushing of the skull and reveal of a similarly shaped but less imposing android, a voice that is also more human than the mechanical and aggressive tenor typified by Arnold’s “I’ll be back,” issues forth, saying, “uh, we are fuckin’ lost aren’t we?”

This android is joined by two other robotic entities that we can infer are all equipped with artificial intelligence. The leader of this expedition/tour through the ruins of human society takes the form of a small orange android, purportedly evolved from a baby monitor and with a head molded under the shape of a baseball cap. These are accompanied by a dalek-like machine with actual feminized computer generated voice that takes in the scenery with all the zeal and knowledge of the most well-prepared tourist, remarking that this initial scene of human destruction is “breathtaking, it’s more beautiful than the brochures.” All while posing for selfies amongst the desolation.

The terminator stand-in, stamped as an X Bot 4000, dismissively responds, “you’ve seen one post-apocalyptic city, you’ve seen ‘em all,” because who should care about the shattered remains and details of such a short-lived society, right? Good riddance, it seems.

The episode follows these three robots as they tour various sites of human civilization from a basketball gym and a diner to the living room of an average family’s home and a visit to a video game store, before a final stop at a military base with a missile launch facility. The robots all the while offering biting commentary tinged with gallows humor on the limitations and ignorance of humanity and the capacities for pettiness, greed and venality that led inexorably to the collapse of human society and the extinction of our species.

As the robots gaze upon the immense destructive power of a nuclear warhead, the only purpose of which, as they mordantly note, was to “annihilate as many humans as possible, as quick as possible.” An observation that brings the ironies of the terms ‘civilization’ and ‘humanity’ into sharp focus through the exposure of the yawning hollowness of human morality, along with our inherent meanness.

The third, more sleek dalek-like, bot offers an answer to the seeming senselessness of human behavior and, sadly, the all-too-imaginable blindness that led to the development and construction of such devices in the first place, noting, “this thing screams phallus.” While the association has long been the punchline of jokes, it’s an observation worth echoing within a society that continues to be plagued by mass shootings while the world remains in the grips of continual outbreaks of global terrorism, armed conflict and warfare.

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Forces and effects that starkly expose predilections of human destructiveness that are so often revealed as the tragic effects of little more than egoism, masculine insecurity and, yeah, small Richard syndrome, (no offence to the named Richard’s out there) and certainly not this either. It is a point that’s also emphasized in the follow-up “Exit Strategies” episode when the robots tour a fortress built by “doomsday preppers” and stocked with guns and ammo but little else. And no, they didn’t last long either. 

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It bears mentioning, too, that it doesn’t seem a coincidence that many of the same people who stake the loudest claims to the moral and religious high ground are also those quickest to justify the use violence, while being the usual opponents to measures offered to safeguard life, address systemic inequalities, or protect the environment. And as the robots soon reveal, despite the destructive potential of nuclear weapons that we see play out in other episodes of Love Death + Robots such as “Ice Age” and “Night of the Mini Dead,” and numerous other apocalyptic stories from Walter M. Miller, Pat Frank, Kurt Vonnegut, and Gerald Vizenor to Stanley Kubrick, the end of the (human) world in this episode happens in a way more consistent with that anticipated by T.S. Eliot in “The Hollow Men,” as coming “Not with a bang but a whimper.”

The third robot clarifies, “Indeed, it was their own hubris that ended their reign, their belief that they were the pinnacle of creation that caused them to poison the water, kill the land and choke the sky. In the end, no nuclear winter was needed, just the long heedless autumn of their own self-regard.” The only survivors of note are revealed to be cats, now armed with genetically engineered opposable thumbs for some unknown, and probably unexplainable, reason. But that’s also the message. Much of what humans do has no point other than to just do it. Because, well, we can.

And while some may take solace as individuals for being aligned on the right side of the political divide, or for their keen insights into the nature of contemporary social problems and selected but typically limited refusals to do business with particular corporations or industries, the robot’s remark about human ‘self-regard’ emphasizes the irony of such facile and insincere efforts that do little to diminish the collective responsibility and guilt of those living in modern consumerist societies.

The associations drawn between the various sites noted above emphasize the normalization of a litany of destructive practices, as well as the ways we rationalize or otherwise distract ourselves from the negative effects of such practices through banal activities, insignificant trifles and mindless entertainment, or just the simple routines of daily life. Activities robot three refers to when reiterating the cause of human extinction in more direct terms, observing, “they just screwed themselves by being a bunch of morons.”

If we are looking for a statement that sums up Love Death + Robots in its totality, this simple, unadorned statement is as good as any that I might come up with. For in other episodes, whether “When the Yogurt Took Over,” “Fish Night” and “Alternate Histories,” or “Automated Customer Service,” “The Tall Grass” and Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s “Mason’s Rats,” thoughtless and irrational decisions driven by greed and selfishness are often shown to be the main instigators of disaster. And yet, despite the repeated failings of characters who seem to make the same kinds of mistakes over and over, there remains a strong sense of agency and an unmistakable faith in the possibility that we still retain the capacity to turn back from the precipice of destruction. To change ourselves, our world.

This is clear when Mason finally raises his shotgun to “retire” the robot exterminator he purchased to rid his barn of a highly evolved form of rats in a misguided attempt to protect his interests. Mason’s statement to the leader of the survivors, “I salute your courage, sir,” after they’d lead a valiant resistance that, nonetheless, seemed doomed to a tragic end in the face of the weaponized rat-killing bot’s overwhelming firepower, serves as a poignant reminder that all life, and the standing of what we may deem as “lower” creatures, are due more respect and dignity than we typically afford. In the rat’s generous offering to Mason of a surprisingly strong and tasty cup of wine from a still of their own making, we find an acknowledgement that there is much we can learn and gain from each other by living in peace and harmony. That our differences and distinctions are far less than we think.

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Viewers find a similar exercise of agency in the wake of even the most enormous mistakes in another of Yuh Nelson’s offerings in “Pop Squad.” In this short, a police executioner named Biggs comes to see the evil of his work and deeds in the enforcement of unjust population laws that he disavows to save a mother and child condemned as his next victims. The decision to gaze upon reality free from the filters of his own belief systems, which we all so commonly re-shape into whatever we want them to be, however, is never an easy and comes at a high price. In Biggs’ case, in the act of giving his life to save a child whose innocence “makes everything new,” he dies a ‘criminal’ and murderer himself. In the end, we may wonder if his act of courage and self-sacrifice can have any real impact on the overcrowded world he existed in? For Yuh Nelson, the answer seems to be it’s the principle that matters.

That other way of thinking, of course, lies at the core of practically all inaction, apathy and disengagement from society—serving as a convenient excuse and justification for doing nothing. Not to mention the self-serving nature of a disregard to injustices that many directly benefit from themselves.

That more travelled path—whether born of comfort, fear or malice—spirals into a condition of perpetual acceptance of the illusions and lies that make some feel safe and secure, while being precisely what Captain Thom, or is it Major?, gives himself over to in “Beyond the Aquila Rift.” In this story of a spacecraft and crew lost in the depths of the cosmos, the reality represents such an abyss that Thom cannot bring himself to gaze into, despite the fact, as another musician sang, “far beneath the ship, the world is mourning, they don't realize, he's alive.” In surrendering all hope of returning home, Thom knows that the decision to turn away from reality also entails the rejection of his very self and future, as well.

It’s a scenario we’ve seen before in sci-fi books and films such as SolarisLem’s and Tarkovsky’s, and Soderbergh’s, too—as well as Event Horizon and Sunshine. Unlike these other stories where humans set out for the unknown fueled by an unshakable sense confidence and purpose that give them feelings of indestructibility, we get the creeping feeling that Thom’s journey, first thought to be the result of a computer glitch, is actually due to the designs of some mysterious and more powerful life form. The terrifying confirmation, again, that we are not the pinnacle of creation is the horrific realization that Thom is made to confront, even before the audience gets a glimpse of the monstrosity that such a being represents. It’s one so odious that even who networks dedicated to pictures of cats cannot make us forget or save us from.

One thing Love Death + Robots could stand to add would be episodes that offer stories from the perspectives of African- and Indigenous futurisms. With such a talented group of directors from Jordan Peele (Get Out and the soon to be released, Nope) Boots Riley (Sorry to Bother You), Jeff Barnaby (File Under Miscellaneous), Amanda Strong (How to Steak a Canoe, Biidaaban and Four Faces of the Moon), Elizabeth LaPensée (Thunderbird Strike and The Path Without End), Lisa Jackson (The Visit) and Tyson Mowarin (Thalu: Dreamtime is Now), and the latest generation of storiers who are infusing the worlds of speculative fiction and sci-fi with new and refreshing energy, including, Nnedi Okorafor, P. Djèlí Clark, and Claire G. Coleman, as well as Stephen Graham Jones, Cherie Dimaline and Rebecca Roanhorse, this is a void that should not be difficult to fill. And in so doing, the addition of such voices is sure to make Love Death + Robots all the more far-ranging, imaginative and inclusive of alternate realities, futures and possibilities.