According to Netflix, The One takes place “five minutes in the future”. In those five minutes, one big leap in technology has happened: a company called The One has learned how to find someone’s perfect romantic partner via some sort of genetic testing. Couples who are “matched” feel an immediate connection, but this isn’t just a carnal response to whatever pheromones really do it for you – this, according to The One, is the person you are “genetically guaranteed to fall in love with”.
The technology is far from plausible, but that doesn’t stop the show from being an intriguing exploration of the human collateral of finding your perfect partner. The new tests are causing a spate of divorces as previously happily married people can’t resist taking one to find their true match. Power-suited CEO Rebecca Webb (Hannah Ware) is comfortably in control until a body is hauled out of the river Thames, triggering a police investigation and a series of flashbacks revealing that she didn’t get where she is by talent alone.
“We deserve the fairy tale,” Rebecca declares in a speech in episode one, but that is far from what this show offers as she goes to increasingly dangerous lengths to maintain control of what she has built, and as the diverse ensemble of supporting characters obsessively pursue their happily-ever-afters.
There are all the hallmarks of a classic thriller here, but it falls a little flat – too much of the mystery is revealed early on, so that the question is less about what Rebecca did and more about what she will do next. But Rebecca is so distant and controlled that she works neither as a great villain, nor as a sympathetic anti-hero.
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Faring better are the admittedly disjointed subplots, in which the effects of being matched take characters in genuinely unexpected directions. Creator Howard Overman has taken some rather large liberties with John Marrs’s source novel, and it feels at times like he should have followed the book’s lead and focused on matched couples, rather than tacking on the corporate intrigue. While that mystery gives the show an obvious hook, it is nothing that hasn’t been seen before.
There is something undoubtedly compelling in the idea of technology finding our perfect partners, and it is a story that has come up a lot of late. Recent anthology show Soulmates has an almost identical concept, and both Black Mirror and Rick and Morty have dedicated episodes to the subject. Netflix series Osmosis also explored the theme with nanorobots that help people find their perfect partner.
However, despite the fact that there are already dating companies that claim to utilise DNA testing, the technology just isn’t there. Matthew Cobb at the University of Manchester, author of The Idea of the Brain, says it simply isn’t possible to detect whether a couple will fall in love based purely on their DNA.
He says that the only case you could make for that idea is that people who have diverse genes controlling their immune system have healthier offspring, and it has been argued that this can be detected by smell. “But sadly those claims are based on very poor studies with very small sample sizes, and are simply untrue.”
It comes down to what compatibility between two humans actually is. “How could you measure it? Is it the same throughout a person’s lifetime, or the lifetime of a couple?” says Cobb. “Very little about humans is solely determined by genetics, so the idea that this most magical and inexplicable part of our behaviour might be determined by a string of ACTGs seems… fictional.”
Of course, that isn’t a problem when you are talking about actual fiction – which The One plainly is. Putting aside pesky facts, the concept promises a rich vein of drama, tension, shocks and humour. The problem is that The One doesn’t quite mine deep enough to find it.