Why aren't more people watching Black Mirror?
There aren’t enough hours in a day to watch all the television we want to—we know this much. It used to be that the cinema was the place where we strapped ourselves in and hoped that maybe for two hours or less we'd like it enough to not twist our bodies around or take a walk. But nowadays, we consume television in a way that embraces how its structural reality has changed. Binge-watching hasn't just inured us to a strange kind of resilience; it's also trained us to look for aesthetic unity over the course of a season, like taking a few steps back to admire a large painting. For whatever reason we decide to plug the old silver screen—sometimes to calm jangled nerves at the end of a long day, at times with the analytical tension we reserve for more scholarly attempts—television fulfills some bottomless need to lose hours to its reveries. Which is why it's ironic that Black Mirror, one of the best dramas this year, has found a second home on Netflix, when even diehard fans will tell you it's the farthest thing from binge-able television there is.
Unlike most series which give characters room to grow and develop over a much wider timespan, or focus on multiple story arcs in progression, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror—a short, intense, and laser-focused jolt of a program—is more compact, having a radically different approach to drama. Each episode has a self-contained story, complete with its own cast of characters and a roving camera that distributes suspense evenly. It's not even a shared universe that unites them, but a single thread that strings the episodes together. The stories, told in feature-length episodes, materialize around a preoccupation with the insidious nature of technology, hurtling toward a recognizable near future—some nearer, more terrifying than others. It’s a mini-series without any strings, an anthology of short films with a world that ends the moment the credits roll.
Unlike most series which give characters room to grow and develop over a much wider timespan or focus on multiple story arcs in progression, Black Mirror is more compact, having a radically different approach to drama.
At first glance, the places in Black Mirror resemble our own with their trees and warmly colored houses. But then we notice at the edge of our vision something that isn’t right, a cowlick of a detail that makes us recoil.
Then comes the thought: what if this were our world?
As a work of speculative fiction, Black Mirror taps into society's morbid fascination with technological advancements and does so without preamble, launching us past the point when it was once rational to question these developments, maybe prevent them from happening at all. It's just so embedded in their lives now that nobody wastes time feeling repulsion or awe, even when their own devices turn against them. In "Hated in the Nation," for example, creating government-sponsored robot honeybees that follow people and also crawl up potential targets' brains turns out to be a terrible idea—who knew? "We tracked suspects for weeks in ways they couldn’t dream of. We prevented bombings, mass shootings,” says Shaun Li (Benedict Wong), a severe government investigator. “By spying on the public,” comes the natural reply; after all, they're right to be wary of nationwide surveillance. “And keeping them safe, which is what they want,” interrupts Shaun Li.
This season, the show's third, is every much a box of virtual chocolates as the last. In "Nosedive," which is as good a place to start as any, one's social media approval rating has now replaced all kinds of currency and each interaction merits a zero to five-star rating; at one point, the protagonist can't board a flight because her standing was lowered by all the people she pissed off on her way to the airport. In “Shut Up and Dance,” a teenage boy is caught in a Saw-like scenario, being blackmailed by an anonymous group to do their bidding or else an incriminating video of him leaks. There are episodes like this one which will make you want to flick your laptop closed, hurl your phone across the room, and sink your head into a book like some newly converted Luddite.
And then there's "San Junipero," where a quiet seaside town becomes a surreal place in which people relive their memories before passing over. The episode unravels slowly to reveal its deceit: San Junipero is really immersive nostalgia therapy, a fictive afterlife that plunges Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) into a world of memories recreated by '80s film iconography and music. Revels burn away after midnight, but the pitching seas remain. It takes a while before the scales fall. Anyone familiar with the format from earlier seasons will only be too used to spending half the episodes rooting around for the off-kilter click, the glitch in an otherwise smooth sailing system. There always is one.
Anyone familiar with the format from earlier seasons will only be too used to spending half the episodes rooting around for the off-kilter click, the glitch in an otherwise smooth sailing system.
Is Black Mirror technophobic? I'm not sure. There's a reason why people recommend savoring this series in increments, leaving time to breathe and stare at the ceiling before doubling down on how horrifying it is. Reflecting on technology can be tricky. I doubt we need any more diatribes about how our devices hobble any chances for an authentic human connection. We’ve been doing the same things for some time now, and I struggle to think that without technology—pretending for a moment that this is something we can extricate cleanly from our lives—we, miraculously, would cease being confused or as splintered as the characters who populate Black Mirror. If anything, it's telling that, even in a future where passing over is made to be as painless as possible, we’re still powerless to arm ourselves against what it all means. As one might expect from a program set in a dystopian universe, the series can get overwhelmingly bleak, on a degree I'm not really certain is cathartic. But Black Mirror, ultimately, is about what our technology says about us, and the thinly veiled horror we internalize as our own.