Black Mirror may be the single hardest show in history to describe to someone who hasn’t yet seen it, which is maybe why so many—from fans to critics to the creators themselves—fall back on the same familiar description: a show about the negative effects of technology on the world. The problem is that this description, while tidy and ultimately effective enough, wildly misses the nuance and precision that the show continuously achieves. Black Mirror is less about the horrors of technology and more about the opportunity technology presents to explore the new and sometimes frightening ways for the bleakest aspects of human nature to rear their ugly heads.
The series has done this since the beginning when, in the very first episode, “The National Anthem”, Prime Minister Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) is forced to perform sexual acts on a pig because of both terroristic threats and intense public pressure. Technology allows for live streaming, viral madness, and Twitter hashtags, but it’s the profound ways these affect the public, the prime minister, and the government officials that make it both interesting and excruciating.
This theme continued through the first two seasons of the series and into the excellent Christmas special. Technology may be the vehicle, but we’re in the driver’s seat, often propelling humanity into oblivion or, at the very least, grim absurdity.
The third season of Black Mirror, which arrived exclusively on Netflix on October 21, 2016, returns with a few things entirely absent from its first two seasons. One is the wide episodic breadth that working with Netflix allows. They no longer must adhere to runtimes, sometimes to detrimental effects, and likely have a much thicker wallet than for previous installments. On the other hand, this season comes with expectation and attention, something that a cult show like Black Mirror must deal with when cult invariably evolves into mainstream—ironically due in large part to social media.
These factors don’t always work to the show’s benefit, as some of the episodes in season three suffer from excess of self-indulgence, burying the always-intriguing hooks in over-stuffed plots. This is true of the opening episode, “Nosedive”, an episode that, interestingly, has perhaps the rawest star power of any in the series. In front of the camera is Bryce Dallas Howard (of Twilight fame) as Lacie, a young woman who must traverse a world similar to our own, but with the volume turned up far past 11. The universe of “Nosedive” is one that takes things like Instagram, Tinder, and Twitter and transforms them from annoyingly pervasive social media fads into essential factors of societal infrastructure.
The story, written by American comedy writers Rashida Jones and Michael Schur, follows Lacie as she tries to get her rating, a point scale from 1 to 5, up to a 4.5 so she can qualify to live in a gated, high-end community. Rather than the simple like or swipe on a picture, in this world each and every social interaction is rated and becomes essential to one’s social standing. A good enough conceit, and at times a sharp criticism of our current culture, “Nosedive” simply doesn’t have the bite that has always made Black Mirror far more than social commentary. Perhaps it’s not surprising, considering the outside forces involved, but “Nosedive” feels almost more like Black Mirror fan-fiction—that is, something cooked up to give fans exactly what they expected—making it a disappointing start to the season.
Conversely, “San Junipero”, the fourth installment in season three, is so unlike every other episode of the series that it’s nearly perfect. Here we have a story of few twists, and even fewer instances in which we can be collectively horrified by our impending technological future. Instead, we have a blossoming love story, a tale of self-discovery and hope, and enough mystery and brain-tickling originality to satisfy even the most cynical Black Mirror fans.
Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw carry this two-hander with impeccable honesty, even when the script calls for almost maddeningly enigmatic scenes of dialogue. Although we do eventually figure out what’s going on, it isn’t the kind of the go-for-broke reveal that makes the episode hinge on its effectiveness. It’s simply part of the large story of “San Junipero” that feels natural, and one that makes the beauty of the story more palpable rather than more elusive.
One thing that Black Mirror has always done well is to switch genres, changing the mood of each installment while keeping the general thesis at the spine of the show intact. Season three shows us, more than ever, how many ways they can tell the story of how emerging technology will forever affect the human psyche. Within the season, you’ve everything from the horror of “Playtest”, which attacks the very real technology of virtual reality and injects it with all the jumps scares of the next Paranormal Activity installment, to the action/adventure-infused “Men Against Fire”. While these episodes have wildly different characters, settings, and ideas, they hold together because of very distinct feelings of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety that creator Charlie Booker has made Black Mirror‘s hallmark.
While Black Mirror has always been imaginative, innovative, and endlessly interesting, it’s never been perfect; season three is no exception. There are moments where the conceit is stretched too thin, the characters reactions seemed forced, or the theme of the episode is lost in all the twists and turns, but that comes with the territory of aiming so high. Black Mirror is unlike any show on television and thus doesn’t have some of the safer places to fall back on, but I, for one, am more than happy to watch them continuously experiment, even if some of these attempts occasionally miss the mark.
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It’s been called “The Twilight Zone for the Tinder generation.”
British anthology series Black Mirror looks at the dark possibilities of contemporary technology, with stand-alone episodes that skewer reality-TV spectacle, surveillance-culture creepiness, video-game violence, social-media shaming and Instagram shallowness.
Charlie Brooker, a mordantly misanthropic satirist and the show’s creator, started in 2011 with two brief U.K. seasons, along with a “Christmas special” so hilariously, viciously bleak you wanted to drown all your tech devices in a bowl of eggnog. The series quickly gained cult cachet and critical buzz.
Last week the third season dropped on Netflix. (The Christmas episode is also up but the first two seasons are not currently available.) The budget may be bigger and the Britishness less pronounced in these six new outings, but Brooker continues to view humans as unfortunate tool-using apes stranded between tantalizing technological possibilities and our own base instincts.
Black Mirror works, for a few crucial — and occasionally appalling — reasons.
IT’S HORRIFYING: Brooker recently announced he’d like to do a Halloween episode, prompting some commentators to argue that all 13 instalments already qualify.
In Black Mirror, technology allows people to get what they want — complete recorded recall of a former relationship, constant social-media validation, algorithmic replicas of lost loved ones, absolute immersion in virtual worlds. Then things go terribly, often terrifyingly wrong.
Nosedive, the new season’s kickoff episode, starts out serene and pastel-coloured. Bryce Dallas Howard is Lacie, who moves through her day with aggressive cheerfulness, obsessed with hyper-curated, photo-ready surface appearances (contrived “casual” selfies, endless latte-and-cookie vignettes).
In this Instagrammed dystopia, every social interaction is rated. Those numbers add up, ultimately determining a person’s employment, housing and social status. Nosedive is scathingly funny when Lacie is doing well and deep-down disturbing when she starts to fall apart.
IT’S CONTROVERSIAL: Black Mirror can be nasty and genuinely shocking, which gets people talking. National Anthem, its attention-grabbing Season 1 debut, involved a British prime minister being forced to commit an act of bestiality on live television.
Pig sex aside, Black Mirror hits that Internet sweet spot, being interesting enough to watch but uneven enough to argue about. Some fans debate the merits of individual episodes, while other viewers argue about Brooker’s vision as a whole.
Black Mirror, after all, is making cautionary tech tales for an audience that is probably watching on computers and phones, and this can be a tricky.
The series comes off as edgy and cool, but also has weird moments of overlap with those grumpy tech-phobic trend pieces from the New York Times — you know, the ones about how the millennials are ruining romance with their hookup aps and walking into things while playing Pokemon Go.
Detractors suggest Brooker is anti-technology, his worst-case-scenario paranoia tending toward a strange form of conservatism.
Defenders counter that Brooker doesn’t hate technology; he just hates human beings. (Phew.) It’s our weak and ugly tendencies that make tech so dangerous, according to this view, not tech itself. Black Mirror — the title refers to our ever-present digital screens — might look like a glimpse of some shiny future, but it’s more a reflection of our most atavistic drives and desires.
Certainly, the episodes that hammer the tech-equals-bad equation can feel simplistic, scaremongering and smug.
The best Black Mirror instalments spend more time on the yearning emotions that underlie our interactions with technology, suggesting a more complicated, layered relationship between body and mind, constant connectivity and actual connection, the human and the digital.
Take the second season’s super-sad and affecting Be Right Back, about a young widow who uses an eerie online service to replicate communication with her dead husband. Or San Junipero from Season 3, which stands out as “that one happy episode,” being a sweetly tender romance between a pleated-khakis 1980s girl and a sprayed-on-spandex 1980s girl. Their technological backstory gradually reveals itself, but without the usual Black Mirror doom.
IT’S PLAUSIBLE: Black Mirror’s horror is sharpened by the fact that many of its scenarios seem possible. The setups aren’t realistic, exactly — in fact, they’re often darkly stylized and trippy — but they feel familiar, with their cranked-up or glitched-out versions of current technology trends.
If you watch the series, you may start looking sideways at your tech devices. But you probably won’t stop using them, which is what gives Black Mirror its peculiar emotional effect, a tortuous combination of panicked alarm and passive depression.
Welcome to the machine: Black Mirror is finally blowing American brains in its excellent third season, after years as a word-of-mouth cult hit. Charlie Brooker’s English anthology horror series does for computer screens what Dark Shadows did for vampires, tapping into the terror of technology as it zooms past the point where our minds can keep up. Are our smartphones an innovation like electricity or fluoride, something that will quickly get taken for granted as a fact of life? Or are they more like angel dust or Quaaludes, an invention that looks normal for a few years but then gets recognized as not healthy for children and other living things? What does constantly clicking our screens all day do to our grey matter? Is the selfie surveillance state irreversible? What happens when some moron ruins your perfect Uber rating?
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Part of the ironic thrill of Black Mirror is watching it as a Netflix stream, on the same screens where you already live most of your emotional and commercial life. The episodes lay out one dystopian tech nightmare after another, all stoned what-if sessions taken to their horrifyingly logical extremes. What if emails from dead lovers could be used to clone them? What if a grain implanted in your brain could let you re-do every scene from your sexual history? What if your sister used your laptop and accidentally installed an app that sends you post-masturbation texts reading “We Know What You Did”?
The series should be nowhere near as frightful as it is, since its insights on technology aren’t exactly bleeding edge. People have been worrying about gadget addiction since long before OK Computer, and as Styx once sang to their special friend Mr. Roboto, “The problem’s plain to see, too much technology / Machines to save our lives / Machines dehumanize.” And that was the Eighties – they didn’t even have call waiting yet. The day after Walter Mondale lost the 1984 presidential race, he blamed it on microphones, saying, “I don’t like these things. I like to look someone in the eye.” It’s not so different from Dante in The Divine Comedy warning that too much chivalric romance literature can corrode your soul – if technology has been dehumanizing us since the 13th century, maybe we’re not all that human in the first place.
That’s the whole point of Black Mirror, and that’s why it hits home right now. Technology is never the trap in these vignettes – the truly deadly trap is the human brain. And at any level of tech sophistication, we find ways to jump in. There’s a key moment in the new episode “Men Against Fire” when an army shrink asks a kill-crazy soldier, “How did you feel emotionally?” He replies, “I didn’t.” A shudder goes down your spine, especially if you just watched him slaughter people on your screen of choice and didn’t feel anything either. This is what makes the show so much more than a satire of technology – the real target is humanity. It’s like The Twilight Zone updated for a world where we let alien gadgets live our lives for us, because all they want is a chance #to #serve #man.
This season’s “Nosedive” is the most chilling Black Mirror ever, written by Rashida Jones and Mike Schur, with Bryce Dallas Howard finding that her whole private life is a social network. (Her dad Ron once turned this premise into a Matthew McConaughey comedy called EDtv, which in its way was even more terrifying to watch.) Every aspect of her life is given a Yelp-style one-to-five star rating that goes down on her permanent record. Slip below a 3.5 rating, and life gets mighty ugly. Tales like this are why the show isn’t really built for binge-watching at all; consuming more than one episode at a time brings diminishing returns. It’s much more effective to watch an hour and then go about your normal day. Or what previously seemed like your normal day. Black Mirror has a way of making it all feel a little less normal.