One of the things I was concerned about with the transfer of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror from Channel 4 to Netflix was an added sheen of glossiness, as it moves also from the UK to the US. The first episode, “Nosedive”, starts with some of those fears being justified. Born from an idea from creator Charlie Brooker with a script by Rashida Jones and Michael Schur, the first episode of the new series gets off to a topsy-turvy start, but it’s not without its moments.
At some unspecified point in the future, Bryce Dallas Howard plays Lacie, who like everyone in this world rates everyone based on five stars. The higher the rating you are, the more access you have to healthcare, better jobs, better homes, as well as climbing the social ladder. Of course the effect of this is that the lower you rate the less you have, so to rate higher people like Lacie live in a false world where everything is fabulous, everything is false and the higher rated people live extraordinary lives, or at least, their social media says they are. In this world perception is everything.
Lacie is invited to her friend Naomi’s wedding, but as her slobbish brother points out, Naomi is a bitch who fucked Lacie’s boyfriend behind her back as well as suffering years of bullying at her hand. But Naomi needs to rate above a 4.5 to get the amazing home in the gated community (all the beautiful people live in gated communities which are extraordinary in their blandness) she’s always wanted since she started climbing the social ladder. However Lacie’s journey to the wedding doesn’t go as expected and she’s forced to confront the way the world is.
“Nosedive” is a decent start. The added sheen of glossiness works and director Joe Wright plays on this, especially in the day-to-day life Lacie lives which is the most facile thing you can imagine. The reason why it isn’t hard to imagine such a life is that most of us know people who live extraordinary lives on social media with their pictures of amazing holidays, endlessly smiling partners and endless pictures of their food. But in reality we know it’s either all, or mostly, fake. Also the idea of being in a life where everyone is rated does tie into another piece of television released this week, the extraordinary HyperNormalisation by Adam Curtis.
The problem is though that “Nosedive” outstays its welcome. It feels bloated and self-indulgent at an hour in running time, when the episode could be more effective trimming some of the fat off it. Also, although the satirical edge of Brooker’s idea is still there, that underlying feeling of horror isn’t. By the end of the episode we have a happy ending of sorts, which which is uncommon for Brooker’s dramatic work in Dead Set, or even Nathan Barley.
The second episode, “Playtest”, is about an American global traveller by the name of Cooper running out of money while in London, so signs up for a test of a new survival horror game which is some new and experimental form of virtual reality. Like the first episode it’s overlong, but once we get to the set-up the ending becomes so blatantly obvious that when it finally arrives it feels like a waste of time.
“Playtest” is written by Brooker and does have some nice comments on gamers and video games (Brooker did after all make his name writing about video games in the 90’s), but Cooper is a badly written character, and the twist ending is right out of the more routine Twilight Zone/Tales of the Unexpected school of storytelling. It is terrible and made me think that perhaps the transition from Channel 4 to Netflix has ruined the idea of Black Mirror and blunted Brooker’s edge? Thankfully the next episode proved me wrong.
“Shut Up and Dance” is one of the best bits of TV you’ll see this year. Alex Lawther plays Kenny, a teenager working in a shitty fast food restaurant who seems to have no friends, and his family is indifferent to his obvious loneliness and isolation. One day he does what most teenagers do when they’re alone in a locked room with access to the internet, and after a session of five-fingered wrist action, he receives an email from an anonymous account showing him they have a video of him wanking and if he doesn’t do as they tell him then they’ll release it to all the contacts in his address book. So Kenny then has to jump to what ‘they’ tell him to do or everyone will know he’s a wanker.
What ensues afterwards is a tense descent into hell for Kenny, and Lawther’s sympathetic performance sells the episode, though saying more will spoil this episode. This is high quality stuff from Brooker and that edge I thought lost is very much in evidence here as this is a vicious, and angry, episode.
After that there’s a palate cleanser with the almost sentimental San Junipero which is set in 1987. Yorkie is a shy young woman newly arrived in this small Californian town, and here she meets Kelly, a lively young woman exactly the opposite of Yorkie. Much to both of their surprise the pair become lovers, but Kelly vanishes which means Yorkie has to go through time to find her.
On first look this seems like a time travel episode, but a clever idea means Brooker can have his cake and eat it. After the bleak, intense third episode this sweetly romantic story isn’t spectacular but it is a highly watchable television.
By this stage, it’s evident that the third season of Black Mirror isn’t as consistent as the other seasons; plus it really is odd seeing Broker write something as awful as “Playtest.” However, episodes three and four show that Brooker’s not lost his bite, or that he’s unwilling to be a soppy romantic in his old age.
“Men Against Fire” is the fifth episode, and it’s a different kind of ‘War is Hell’ story. Stripe is a new recruit in a squad in some unnamed Eastern European country hunting down ‘Roaches’; some monstrous opponent whose very touch and presence not only repulses people, but makes food inedible. Stripe and his squad find a civilian protecting Roaches and we see that they’re horrific monsters; so after a fight Stripe kills two of them, but after one uses a strange device on him he suffers problems with his MASS; an implant that helps augment reality for him so he can instantly see schematics, as well as images from drones or any number of strategic uses.
Stripe starts suffering glitches, plus he notices he’s getting a sense of smell which is something MASS suppressed. In another Roach hunt Stripe sees human beings – not monsters – and he finds out the real horror of what MASS is and why it’s used to make soldiers do what they do.
This episode is a pretty sold one. The idea of using technology to enable soldiers to dehumanise the enemy is a good one, though some punches are clearly pulled in terms of the organisation doing this, and it skims past spelling out exactly why ‘’Roaches’’ have to be killed. All in though, this is pretty good stuff and very, very Twilight Zone-esque. I almost expected Rod Sterling to pop up at the end to tell us the moral message.
The final episode is actually a feature length Black Mirror. “Hated in the Nation” is centred around a Katie Hopkins-type clickbait journalist who writes something horrendous in the national media which provokes a terrible reaction on social media. The journalist is found dead with her throat slashed courtesy of a broken bottle, so Detective Parke (Kelly McDonald doing her best version of a detective on a BBC 4 Scandinavian crime drama) has to get to the bottom of the murder.
In a week where commentators like Hopkins and Kelvin MacKenzie are spouting hateful bullshit for money in the media, this episode is extraordinarily relevant – but it does take a strange turn when robotic bees end up being the murder weapon, giving Black Mirror its first actual super-villain as this is very similar to a villain from The Flash. There’s got to be a verisimilitude in these stories but this doesn’t quite hold up, which doesn’t make it a bad episode – it’s just a bit off. As an episode it acts as a bit of social commentary as well as satire, though it should have ended a minute before it actually does. Brooker has also said that some of the characters in this episode will return in future episodes.
The transition to Netflix has produced a patchy series of Black Mirror. A couple of stand out episodes, a couple of good, solid episodes and one utterly terrible one isn’t bad; but having followed Brooker’s career since TV Go Home, it would seem the creator is being more subdued here in a bid to attract a larger, more mainstream audience. That said, there’s some great social commentary here, as well as raging anger. Indeed, in the sixth episode, there’s a line of dialogue about how crap the future is, which seems to be Brooker himself despairing about just how we’re living in a future of technological marvels but approaching dystopia. The marvels help us escape just how fucked we are as a culture and society. That’s probably true.
Black Mirror is available now to watch on Netflix on the technologically marvellous device of your choice.