Black Mirror (Seasons 1-3, 2011-2014, originally aired on Channel 4)
A couple of my friends told me about Black Mirror, a British T.V. series that takes the future and makes it shiny, rich with technology and painfully dark. Of course, they thought it would be right up my alley because I love the Brits and anything weird; and although it started in 2011, us North Americans (or maybe just little ol’ me) are just catching wind of it now on Netflix. After binge watching all the episodes and loving each sordid take on pieces of humanity neatly arranged, duplicated or dulled by advanced gadgetry, I have a new appreciation for Luddites and a simpler life.
Three seasons in, series creator and writer Charlie Brooker aimed to unsettle the viewer and leave happy resolutions to his stories in the dust. Using classic shows like The Twilight Zone and The Night Gallery as inspirations, Brooker wanted to devastate the audience, little by little :
From the writing to casting well-known and diverse British actors in out-of-the-box roles, he did an outstanding job. There were some episodes that were stronger that others, but I want to highlight my favourites.
The Entire History of You, episode 3 of Season 1, was extremely relatable and begs the question of whether ignorance really is bliss. Rather than rely on a natural memory, most of the population has a “grain” implant, a tiny device that lives under the skin recording every moment of your life. An insecure lawyer (Toby Kebbell from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) whose career and relationship is up in the air decides that his grain will help reveal the truth. He soon tortures himself with the destructive use of memory recalled at the flick of a switch. The scenarios played out in his marriage were unsettling and realistic. I can see most people using their implant to win an argument, or obsess and re-examine every second, except this time with painfully crystal clarity, crushing their hearts in the heaviness of life’s minutiae. There are reports that Robert Downey Jr. has bought the rights to make this a full-length film. Although the original writer Jesse Armstrong is behind the film script, I’m not hopeful (ugh!).
Be Right Back, the first episode from Season 2, was full of disturbing melancholy. Martha (Agent Carter‘s Hayley Atwell) is grieving the loss of her husband Ash (Domhnall Gleeson), who was always on social media. She is encouraged by a friend to use his social media footprint in order to keep her husband’s memory alive. The widow goes from flat-out refusal to rising degrees of desperation in order to have him back. It is a cautionary tale that covers two issues: the first is the way we might grieve in the future and the lengths we may go to keep our loved ones as more than just a faded memory; the second puts our online presence in the spotlight and makes you wonder how much of yourself should put out into cyberspace and how much of it might take on a life of its own.
The second episode from the same season jangled the nerves. White Bear opens with a woman (Being Human‘s Lenora Crichlow) who awakens to an empty house and a strange symbol on all the television sets. When she emerges outside, there are shadowy figures in windows filming her with their smartphones, and eventually chase her through the neighbourhood, not uttering a word in reply to her pleas for help. She has no memory of who she is or where she comes from, and once a balaclava-clad gunman drives up with her in his crosshairs, she is in for the fight of her life. This was a brilliant take on the spectator culture we are so overrun with these days. The community here swirls with apathy, perverse enjoyment and judgement. I really liked the twisted ending, and it puts a microscopic lens on a specific aspect of social media culture that I personally loathe.
Season 3’s only episode, White Christmas, brings us a winding tale of that pesky spectator issue, murder and heartbreak that was really inventive. Matt (Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm) is a chatty house mate to Joe (Rafe Spall), a sullen man of few words. They are together for Christmas dinner, and at Matt’s cajoling, they each tell their stories of why they are in a cabin on a wintry Christmas day. It was great to see Hamm shed his Don Draper shadow to branch out into sci-fi again. This episode really made me think of the Outer Limits or Twilight Zone, but with a bleaker outlook for a morally numb 21st century.
Other episodes of note were The National Anthem from Season 1. A satirical story of a British Prime Minister (played brilliantly by Penny Dreadful‘s Rory Kinnear) that has to copulate with a pig in order to save a princess was so realistically disturbing it made me feel ill instead of wanting to laugh, although it did shed light on the absurdity of political backroom negotiations and viral public opinion. I preferred this episode to The Waldo Moment from Season 2 that broached a similar subject, this one highlighting the popularity of a cartoon bear running for office because of social media.
Another Season 1 episode, Fifteen Million Merits starring Daniel Kaluuya, made my list as well. I first saw this young actor in the now defunct British series The Fades, as the hysterically funny best friend Mac, and he has since showcased his talent in films like Kick-Ass 2. This time, we are taken to a world where daily cycling creates power and earns riders merits which they can spend on various pastimes, like video games or porn. You can also use them to enter a reality talent competition, which Bing (Kaluuya) does, but not for himself. He decides to help Abi (Jessica Brown-Findlay), a girl he has a crush on, but things take a turn for the worse. I enjoyed Kaluuya’s performance as the endearing Bing and this take on fame, the working class, image and literally selling out in the future.
I really loved the innovations that were presented in all the episodes, and kudos to the designers who created advanced but believable technology that seems to be right around the corner for us all. Each story blended the human element and the artificial with a brilliant ease that made each scenario all the more worrying. How much do we rely on technology? How often do we expect a smart phone, tablet, or laptop to connect us to a virtual world that seems easier to navigate? Is it easier, or does it just stress the animals in their caged realities? Brookner and the Black Mirror team did a great job bringing up these questions with tales of insidious science, so-called advancement and fear…welcome to a frighteningly real future…