We try to keep up on TV as it happens, but with the sheer number of shows out there, it’s not always possible. And so, as Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Captain Ray Holt famously put it, we have to spend the weekend bingewatching media content. This time, it’s the British import Black Mirror. The first two season are streaming on Netflix, those episode plus this year’s Christmas special are on iTunes, and they all still run from time to time on DirecTV’s Audience Network.
At this point, creator Charlie Brooker’s series only has seven episodes. Yeah, these are Sherlock seasons here. But each one is a standalone, making it perfect for either binging or random sampling. The most common description of Black Mirror is that it’s a technology-oriented Twilight Zone, and that’s more or less accurate. It’s an anthology, and several of the episodes present our world but with one extra piece of tech or social media that changes everything. An implant that allows users to store all of their memories and play them back with perfect clarity, say. Or a service that can create simulations of the dead using their email and social media so people can talk to deceased loved ones on the phone. (The title of the series, per Brooker, refers to the way a screen looks when it’s turned off.)
But then there’s the first (and probably most famous) episode, “National Anthem”. When a duchess is kidnapped, her abductor makes just one demand for her release – the Prime Minister has to have sex with a pig on live television. The second season finale, “The Waldo Moment”, explores what happens when a joke political candidate tries to be something more. So it’s not all technology, but Black Mirror episodes definitely feel like Black Mirror episodes, which is a statement that won’t make sense until you watch it.
“National Anthem” seems like it should be ten minutes long – it feels like the setup to a joke. But it hunkers in and deals with the Prime Minister’s increasingly desperate attempts to get out of it, the effect it has on his marriage, and the way the public reacts. There’s also this interesting idea about traditional media vs. the Internet, where TV news producers struggle to find a way to address the story without getting too specific but the audience has already seen the ransom video on YouTube. They know what’s going on and they’re actively tweeting about it while the newscasters can only allude to a “lewd act”. It’s so well-conceived and then the scenes that play over the end credits cast everything in a new light. (There’s a similar trick in “White Bear”. Basically, you’re going to want to watch to the end of the credits every time because there’s a chance that everything’s going to change on you.)
And then there’s “Fifteen Million Merits” which presents a completely different alternate reality. It’s not just a little tweak. Here, it’s a society where everybody is either an entertainer, a janitor, or else they ride an exercise bike all day to generate electricity. It feels a lot like a Vonnegut novel; actually, it feels more like the story that a character in a Vonnegut novel wrote and keeps talking about. I think this might be my favorite episode. I love the deliberate pacing, the quiet, the lack of exposition. And when it eventually gets to the conclusion that you should be expecting, there’s this extra bit of cynicism that makes it infinitely more interesting.
Mostly, I think Black Mirror is about isolation. Whether it’s voluntary, forced, or accidental, most episodes come back to that idea. But almost anything you pick as a theme is going to exclude at least one episode and then it turns into a complicated Venn Diagram. Just go with “21st Century Twilight Zone“, and you’re pretty well in the ballpark.
The anthology format means a different cast with each episode. It’s a nice mix of people you’ve never heard of her are perfect for the part and big stars. Downton Abbey‘s Jessica Brown Findlay has a key role in “Fifteen Million Merits”. Agent Carter herself, Hayley Atwell, is the lead in “Be Right Back”. “White Christmas” stars Rafe Spall and freaking Jon Hamm.
That’s probably the best episode to sample. It’s also the only one not streaming on Netflix since it just aired over the holiday. It’s a real standout – there’s a framing sequence with Spall and Hamm as two guys who don’t know one another stuck in a cabin for reasons that aren’t immediately clear. This sets up three vignettes that deal, to one degree or another, with Black Mirror‘s big themes of technology and isolation. There’s Hamm as a Mystery-like pick-up artist, which is genuinely hilarious but also really, really dark. Jon Hamm is basically evil Don Draper throughout the episode. I know sometimes Don Draper seems like evil Don Draper, but trust me on this one. Another Hamm-centric section (co-starring Game of Thrones‘ Oona Chaplin) deals with what really powers a smart house. Finally, Spall’s story deals with how marriage works in a world where you can block people in real life the way you can on social media. Rather than dealing with the larger implications, it focuses on the microcosm of this one couple.
Robert Downey Jr.’s production company bought the film rights to a single episode of Black Mirror, “The Entire History of You”. (The only episode not written or co-written by Brooker.) The episode is about a world where people can replay all of their memories at any time thanks to a cerebral implant. It’s a great, clever episode. That said, I have no idea how it could be expanded into a movie. As it is, it’s exactly the length it needs to be. I have a bad feeling that the movie version will be a significant departure and involve somebody witnessing a murder. Or being accused of murder due to faulty memory playback. My point is, it will probably not be a good movie. (Yes, this is my early review of a movie that doesn’t exist in any form yet. I am the problem.)
The downside of binging on Black Mirror is that you’ll burn through it in a hurry and the next season hasn’t even been scheduled. There were three episodes in 2011, three in 2013, and one last year. Their production schedule could best be described as “meandering”. (Their seven episodes in four years gives them a lower annual production amount than Sherlock‘s nine in five years.) But it’s also the perfect amount to get through in a weekend. A dark, dark weekend.
It’s not for everybody; it can be genuinely disturbing. Basically, if you can hear the plot of “National Anthem” and you still want to go forward, you’ll be fine. If that bothers you, skip over that one and “White Bear”, but try any of the other episodes. In no time at all, you’ll be one of those people who won’t stop talking about Black Mirror.