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Recap / Philip K Dicks Electric Dreams S 1 E 5 Real Life

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Sarah (Anna Paquin) is a policewoman living in the future who shares headspace with George (Terrence Howard), a brilliant game designer living in the present. While both of them try to understand which one of them is "real" and which one is living in a dream, both are pursuing violent killers whose plans could have shattering consequences. In a race against time, sharing a bond that no one else can see, they learn the very thing that connects them can also destroy them.

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  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The world George lives in is pretty much our world, but with slightly more advanced technology.
  • Adaptational Sexuality: Overlaps with Gender Flip — the protagonist of the original story was simply a straight white man who flipped back and forth between the future and the past, without radical changes to his own identity. In this version, the "future" version of the character is a lesbian while the "past" version is a straight man.
  • Adaptation-Induced Plot Hole: Philip K. Dick's original story "Exhibit Piece" was explicitly about a Fan of the Past grappling with a Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane uncertainty over whether he had really traveled back into the 1950s or just become so obsessed with studying the 1950s he'd lost touch with reality. In "Real Life", this element of the story is completely dropped, leaving us to wonder why Sarah would choose the 21st century in particular as a setting for her "vacation" or where she would've gotten the knowledge from in order to reconstruct it with any degree of accuracy.
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  • Anti-Escapism Aesop: A rare case in which the fictional world is crappier and much closer to our reality. The protagonist has psychological issues that cause her to choose the darker world as "reality".
  • Big Bad: Colin, a crime boss, is the main antagonist in both worlds. In the real world he ends up being something of an Anticlimax Boss. In the fictional world he is a Karma Houdini, indicating how the pessimistic Sarah expects bad people to get away with murder.
  • Crapsack Only by Comparison: "Real Life" presents two worlds: a brighter far future with flying cars, and a near-future that is pretty much like our reality.
  • Cuckoo Nest: The main premise of the episode. A lesbian policewoman in a far future society takes a virtual vacation as a straight male widower living in a near-future society who is also the developer of a virtual reality machine that allows him to live out a fantasy life as a lesbian policewoman in the future...
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  • Downer Ending: Sarah chooses to remain as George, not only being trapped in the false reality, but also the most unhappy of her two lives.
  • Gender Bender: A white lesbian policewoman becomes a straight black man when she takes a virtual vacation.
  • Girl-on-Girl Is Hot: Sarah uses her being a lesbian, married to a hot woman that loves sex, as one of the signs that her reality is a male fantasy.
  • Happily Married: Sarah and Katie in the real world. In the fictional, darker world Katie is The Lost Lenore to grieving George.
  • I Choose to Stay: We get a Downer Ending variant of this Trope. The protagonist chooses to stay in the worse of two lives, because she thinks it is the real one. Turns out, the happier, futuristic life she rejected was the real one.
  • Lipstick Lesbian: Both Sarah and Katie, her wife, who both act indistinguishable from straight women, so the reveal of their relationship is surprising.
  • Lotus-Eater Machine: The virtual vacation is pretty much this. It's not just a perfect simulation of "another life", but it actually causes the user to start questioning their own reality, especially as details from one seem to bleed over into the other... or do they?
  • New Technology Is Evil: In both worlds the "vacation" is a Flawed Prototype not yet ready for general consumption, considered dangerous because of its ability to read the user's unconscious mind.
  • Omnidisciplinary Scientist: Apparently George created the VR helmet the "vacation" runs on in order to find a way to bring his wife back, breaking barriers in several unrelated fields in the process. The sheer importance of George in his universe — compared to Sarah's universe where the "vacation" is just an upcoming product Katie got a sneak preview for from the company she works at — is a hint that his is the fictional one.
  • Prefers the Illusion: Though she doesn't realize it's an illusion.
  • Race Lift: The "past" version of the character is played by Terrence Howard, although his race is never mentioned (despite the theme of the past being a Crapsack World compared to the future).
  • Rich Idiot with No Day Job: George is a billionaire CEO who seems to have nothing better to do with his time and money than personally play vigilante. Lampshaded when the DA chews him out for trying to be a "real-life Bruce Wayne." The inherent absurdity of this trope is ultimately a hint that, unlike in Sarah's world where she's just one police officer out of many, this world is designed to cater to her narcissistic sense of guilt.
  • Schrödinger's Butterfly: The main character is unsure whether s/he is actually a guilt-ridden lesbian policewoman in the far future imagining that she's a billionaire CEO in the near past who has lost his wife, or the other way around. At the end, s/he decides to stay in the crappier past, but it turns out the other reality was the real one and she's now in a permanent coma.
  • Spiritual Antithesis: It works as one to Black Mirror: San Junipero. Both episodes involve lesbians entering virtual reality worlds. But where San Junipero is a hopeful story about escaping an unhappy real world to inhabit a virtual paradise, in this one the real world was happier, and the virtual reality "escape" is more of a self-inflicted punishment.
  • Survivor Guilt: Sarah suffers from this, after surviving a massacre that claimed the lives of several of her fellow police officers.
  • This Is Reality: Played for drama. Sarah becomes aware that the world she lives in fits many tropes of 21st-century escapist science fiction, as part of her growing belief her world isn't real. (Ironically, nobody really brings up the same objection for the equally-tropey world George lives in.)
  • Your Cheating Heart: George and Paula in the fictional world.
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