One slick trend that I approve of in modern television is smartly integrating technology into their narratives. BBC’s Sherlock, for instance, does a stellar job of showing how phones can be used to tell parallel stories and implicate heavier parts of them for drama. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. even kicks off the whole series with some timely references to how it disseminates information to the masses.
Those shows, though, rarely go beyond simply mirroring the functions of the real world. People text nowadays instead of sending emails and making calls, so that’s how it works in television. Granted, writers have learned to start using that sort of thing better and better (which Casey Johnston breaks down splendidly), but that’s very often where it stops. They just use it.
That’s where Black Mirror picks up, a British television series that dives into the minutiae of what makes technology’s twisted, symbiotic grasp on our lives so terrifying. Or at least what should make it terrifying if we ever stopped to think about it. And it’s very obvious creator Charlie Brooker, who also made Dead Set, has thought about it as he presents these self-contained short stories.
As a satirist, Brooker takes our dependency and irrational love for technology to its horrifying logical conclusion. It’s not just that we use our phones at dinner or get our news from Twitter instead of actual news programs but that it has begun to infiltrate previously cordoned parts of our brain. It shows so spectacularly our collectively addled minds in the opening episode The National Anthem.
Spoiler Alert: from here on out, it’s very likely what I say will contain spoilers, major or not. The first two seasons of the show have just been added to Netflix, so if you have an account (and you are a human being, so I’m assuming you do), you should go watch it and then come back to finish reading so you can tell me how big of an idiot I am or whatever.
We have the “Facebook princess,” named so because she accepted a marriage proposal over Facebook, something that already happened way too many times to count as even news anymore. She’s also just a peach of a person, being a humanitarian and whatnot. But she’s been kidnapped, held ransom at the price of a Prime Minister’s dignity: he has to fuck a pig on live television.
This introduction to Black Mirror is so intensely complex. There’s the whole idea that we, as a people, would be so perverse as to actually enjoy watching another person being forced to have sex with an animal to save another person’s life. But we also have an intimate look at the crumbling of a marriage as the Prime Minister’s wife simply can’t stand to look at him anymore, a tragedy that further encompasses a facade of happiness post-bestiality and the psychological trauma of the very act that did it.
And then there’s the bit about the journalistic hunt to pick up any news on the event in any way possible, which leads to a nearly botched rescue operation and a view at the withering integrity of both government and media. Brooker somehow turns an absolutely absurd and nearly comical situation into an incredibly sobering and realistic depiction of how we think and how we operate under the various guises of humanity being humane.
The second episode, Fifteen Million Merits, is perhaps the best of the first two seasons, and definitely bears a grotesque resemblance to our lives. (It bears mentioning that each episode has a completely different cast and setting with no overt sign that anything is connected.) In it, we find that nearly everyone in the world has been relegated to riding bikes to generate power to the world, an activity that also earns them the currency of Merits.
Everything costs something. Toothpaste costs Merits. Food costs Merits. Skipping ads during a video game costs Merits. And boy are there ads. There are ads everywhere, and they are “tailored” to your habits. Our protagonist Bing Madsen, in fact, has a proclivity to watch a pornographic stream called “Wraith Babes,” so ads of women kissing each other will often plague his tiny, screen-covered square dorm room.
It is, actually, just screens. On every wall, you can see what they want you to see. Correction: you have to see what they want you to see, cutting off and warning and annoying you if you obstruct your view of the ads, a move eerily similar to how Spotify will pause ads if you mute or lower the sound.
Not everyone has this life, though. Some people escape by making it big on the talent show “Hot Shot,” an American Idol-type show where people try to make it onto a stream (read: channel) to escape the bike. It’s always either you take what they offer or you go back to the bike, a depressing existence of dark walls and petri dish food.
Here, we have an exceptionally and disgustingly precise view of the world as we know it. The entire biking workforce has been subjected to gamification, earning Merits in nickels and dimes while walking past a giant leaderboard every morning. And then you spend it all back in nickels and dimes on digital hats and pants for you “Dopple,” a digital avatar not unlike the one on your Xbox Live account.
It is so striking because, as a person in the modern world, how likely is it that you will pick up your phone while you watch this show because it dings? And how often will it be an email asking you to sign up for a service? Or reminding you to log back in to something? Or just telling you that you can save %15 if you buy now?
It comments on something that is actively happening to you while you watch. Even the entirety of the arena for “Hot Shot” is formatted like that of 1 vs. 100 on Xbox 360, a memory hard to ignore as your Xbox One and Xbox 360 stare at you from your shelves and those Dopples wave back from your TV. The ad-driven economy of the workers, the inescapable necessity of grinding marketing, and a listless existence of snidely poking at everyone else’s decision to exist as well. It’s painful to accept that it’s all true.
Even more piercing is the ending. The enumerating complaints that you nod along with as the episode goes on eventually gets spilled out in the way you’d hope: in the face of those most visible in the plight against those bikers. Yelling at the judges with a shard of glass at his neck, Bing erupts in articulate anger detailing how fucked up the framework of their lives is. And then, of course, he joins the corruption, choosing to host a weekly debasement of his fundamental beliefs so as to both not die and not go back to the bike.
That whole episode feels like a punch to the gut. It is poignant and twisted in a rare combination that I can’t say I’ve seen in years. The third episode lacks that same effect, mostly resigning itself to a superficial parable on living in the past and accepting people for who they are. But even then, it’s packed with such masterful storytelling and potent acting (not to mention a delicious premise of wholly accurate, controllable, and sharable memory) that it’s hard not to find it a compelling anyways.
The same goes for the rest of the second season. (I know they’re called series, but just let it go, okay?) The acting is just superb and the settings for the episodes are unbelievably well realized bits of science fiction and horror. Be Right Back, the first of the season, is emotionally impactful and has delectable notes of Her while White Bear, the second of the season, packs a devilish twist and skews close to parts of The Purge.
The Waldo Moment, the season closer, is the weakest, bringing about somewhat misaligned attempts at jabbing at our half-assed political engagement. It has, once again, an interesting premise but fails to follow through on anything more than where we can see it heading in the first third of the episode. The best it provides is an aching sensation as we witness something one man creates being misappropriated for another man’s greed. Significant in its existence but not substantially explored in the story.
As a series, Black Mirror definitely stumbles every so often. Its quality wavers here and there and even dips into some mediocre territory at the end of season two, but it starts of with two absolutely unbelievable entries and continues to provide engrossing propositions of what-if. With stellar acting and topnotch production value shacking up with Brooker’s precise and pessimistic satirical mind, you have no reason not to watch.