Alone in a strange new place – bucolic, sun dappled and wholly unreal – a teenage girl gets surprised by a stranger and does what anyone would to do in the circumstances – she punches him square in the jaw and follows with a swift kick to the gut. Curled up on the grass, he registers a complaint. “What do you mean, ‘hurt’?” says Leila, or rather her avatar, Shadowfax. “Nothing hurts here. That’s the point.”
The "here" in Kiss Me First (Channel 4, Monday, 10pm) is a virtual reality open-world game called Azana. It's a place where you might explore, fly or pause to beat an acquaintance into a bloody pulp with no lasting damage or resentment. Naturally, it is where Leila chooses to escape to, in Tallulah Haddon's excellent, underplayed performance, following the death of her mother. Nothing hurts here.
But Shadowfax quickly finds a sub-group, a band of misfit hackers stewing in proud self-loathing, keen to break the rules, and prone to self-harm – in short, other teenagers.
"We're Red Pill" one tells her. When Leila dutifully traces the meaning of "Red Pill" back to a dusty Wikipedia entry on a 1999 phenomenon called The Matrix – in short, ancient history – anyone who paid good money to see Keanu Reeves download Kung Fu in the cinema will feel about as old as Methuselah. Or, indeed, as old as Keanu Reeves.
The Matrix may be a clear source – Leila's arrival, like Neo's, has been prophesised – but, neither ingratiating nor patronising, this six-part Channel 4 and Netflix co-production is pitched more adeptly at a new generation of viewers while remaining generously available to anyone who remembers how it feels to be them.
Based on Lottie Moggach's 2014 novel, which imagined its protagonists sheaved off from the real world in online chat rooms, and adapted by Bryan Elsley for a more visually immersive post-Aavatar age, it is brisk in its treatment of drab real-life concerns.
The death of Leila’s mother, for instance, is quickly pushed out of mind, while an eager, apparently unembarrassable new flatmate Jonty (the amiable Matthew Aubrey), with acting ambitions, insists on privacy “for when I practise my solos… my soliloquys.”
Videogames, like soliloquys, can be lonesome teenage pursuits, but Kiss Me first doesn't deny its characters sexual precociousness or a hectic social life. Tess, who goes by the name Mania online, and in Simona Brown's winning performance looks no less ethereal on a wet London street, filmed in a soft haze of light, works like an intoxicant on Leila.
When these three retreat to the breathless euphoria of a heaving club, where a hesitant Leila is invited into a cloakroom that feels like a wardrobe into Narnia, and Tess discretely shares pills that are conspicuously blue, the show is sly and non-judgmental about all the alternative realities to which a young person might be drawn. In the spry and involving escapes that Kiss Me First offers, they might readily find another.
Kiss Me First continues on Channel 4