Although they don’t get much credit for it, the French were pioneers in the literature of science fiction, and they are now excelling in the genre on cinema and television screens as well. In the past few years, several original French TV shows have gained international audiences thanks to their availability on streaming platforms.
Osmosis, an eight-episode series created by Audrey Fouché and released on Netflix in 2019, was only the second show in French to be commissioned by the streaming giant. Set in the near future in Paris (the date is never specified), it involves a pair of sibling entrepreneurs, Paul and Esther Vanhove. They are testing a new dating app called Osmosis, which implants a chip in users to retrieve brain data and find the perfect match with infallible accuracy. The season follows the volunteer beta-testers and culminates with the launch of Osmosis in the finale.
The strength of the show lies in its cast, not least of which the brother and sister heading Osmosis. The independent, strong Esther (played by Agathe Bonitzer) may display a distant, almost cold, emotional front to the world and indulge in transient sexual encounters, but, like the rest of us, she yearns to be loved. Her headstrong brother Paul (Hugo Becker) is fiercely devoted to his sister and determined to ensure the success of their fledgling company in the face of the many challenges it faces from the authorities and the competition, and despite their mixed results with the sample candidates. Their evolving relationship is a major theme of the season, which brings out complications connected to their childhood and their conflicts over how to run the business.
Osmosis sometimes makes surprising choices for its test subjects. Anna, who has low self-esteem and an eating disorder, is paired with a confident health coach, Simon. It transpires that Simon feels undereducated, and Anna begins to train the trainer in poetry. In return, he does not try to make her diet or exercise but rather accepts her as she is.
Lucas, a young gay man, lies about his relationship status to enter the testing program as he wants to know if he is meant to be with Antoine, his current loyal companion. Instead, he is told that his life partner is his serially unfaithful ex. Much turbulence follows, with unexpected results.
The star of the series is Billie, the staff member who monitors the volunteers over the weeks of the trial with a pastoral and touching concern that does not always respect the rules. Billie is a nonbinary character played with great nuance by Yuming Hey, a young actor to watch out for. Osmosis, by the way, is, mercifully, much more diverse than the 2015 series on the French-German TV channel Arte on which it is based, with its entirely Caucasian and heterosexual gamut of characters.
The finale succeeds in tying up loose ends, introducing some surprises and discreetly setting up the possibility of further seasons.
Unlike some French TV shows, Osmosis does not consciously imitate its English-language counterparts, aside from the occasional nod to conventions. Executive producer Sarah Aknine has said, “On n’est pas dans Black Mirror!” (“This isn’t Black Mirror!”). Unlike that successful British show (also available on Netflix), Osmosis has a more positive view of the future and lacks the technophobia often found in sci-fi series.
In Osmosis, Paris, showcased to great effect through location shots, is a greener city with no traffic and a seamlessly diverse society, in which smoking has been eliminated. Corporate greed and state authoritarianism – represented by a sinister cybercrime unit – lurk beneath the surface, however. In this society, predatory capitalism, rather than a futuristic dating method, is the real problem, but the search for love is a paramount concern. The overpowering need for love turns this gripping show into a fairy tale that just might come true.