The US is in an ecstasy of delight: At precisely the moment when everyone is done with their families, desperate for a reason to retreat into their bunkholes, and starting to weary of vacation, the internet has delivered. Channel 4’s Black Mirror is available to stream on Netflix, and everyone’s taking advantage of the legal appearance of the hit British show on US soil. While many had, er, already watched the show via extralegal means, an entirely new audience is being introduced to the darkly sardonic, disturbing, and probing programme — just the sort of thing to liven up the holiday season.
Black Mirror is perhaps best described as a series of enigmatic vignettes, a programme that relishes in confounding, confusing, and perturbing the viewer while commenting on the way we live. In addition to being an indictment of modern society, it looks at what it would be easy for us to slip into, given an opportunity to do so; creator Charlie Brooker (of The Guardian) notes that the programme is, in part, a commentary on how readily we accept technology and how ubiquitous it becomes, almost before we have a chance to understand it or an opportunity to adapt to it.
The show manages to walk a delicate line very well. It comments very adroitly on technophilia in modern society and our mutual obsession with documenting every moment of our lives, becoming deeply invested in the technology all around us, and engaging in ultimately frivolous and vacuous activities mediated through tech — the ‘black mirrors’ of the title are the dark screens that sit around us, like the ones that are likely all around you as you read this — but it’s not a preachy programme. It can be difficult to make a sharp statement about the human condition without turning it into a lecture, but this isn’t Brooker’s style. Instead, he approaches the show from a position of satire and stark comment, and the show is all the better for it.
Each episode of Black Mirror introduces an entirely new set of characters. They occupy a different setting, perhaps even a different world, and they engage with utterly distinct storylines. In an era of highly interconnected episodic television that can be difficult to keep up with, as it demands that viewers watch every single episode in order, Black Mirror stands out. Its three lushly produced episodes each season (two so far, and a third under contract) stand up on their own. Viewers can watch any or all of them, don’t have to pick a particular order, and can dip in and out of the series with ease; while sometimes individual episodes contain subtle nods or hat tips to each other, they’re not connected.
For new fans, this allows for a sort of slow ramp up, with experienced guides selecting some of the less intense episodes first to each people into the bizarre, troubling world of Black Mirror. The programme isn’t just deeply unsettling, bizarre, and strange: It is at times grotesque and twisted. These episodes are no light, superficial commentary on modern living: Think ‘The Lottery’ or ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ ‘Guts,’ ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find.’ Episodes like ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ and ‘Be Right Back’ are unsettling and strange, with technologies and cultures creepily close to our own, approaching the uncanny valley, but they don’t delve fully into the aggressively and creepily bizarre depths the show is capable of.
The most unsettling episode may have been the programme opener, ‘The National Anthem,’ which has become famous even to those who haven’t started watching yet. In the episode, kidnappers seize a member of the royal family and demand that the prime minister have sex with a pig before they’ll return her safely. The episode probes into the nation’s obsession with the royal family, how far people are willing to go in extreme circumstances, and how much the viewer herself will tolerate in the face of escalating and terrifying on-screen drama.
Dropping viewers into the cold plunge was a calculated and deliberate move on the part of the producers, who clearly wanted to leave their audiences squirming. For those who dropped out after ‘The National Anthem,’ the programme kept getting more bizarre and mysterious, approaching new situations from fresh perspectives and challenging assumptions on the part of viewers; what would it be like to live in a world where you could record every detail of your life to relive later? How would you feel if you resurrected someone on the basis of actions on social media? Or, as we plunged into in ‘White Christmas,’ the Christmas special that was decidedly unlike any Christmas special that had ever aired, what if you could create a real life killfile, or blocklist, as the younger generation may know it?
Black Mirror challenges us to think about the technologies around us and how we use them, interact with them, and accept them. It also brings up some awkward commentary on human nature and how it interplays with technology; we are often given toys that are too large for us, that we don’t fully understand, and yet we play with them anyway, and sometimes the results are catastrophic. On Black Mirror, it’s all hypothetical, but in the real world, it has more meaningful and immediate consequences. The programme asks us not just what kind of world we want to live in, but what kind of world we want to build.
It’s also just brilliantly cast, beautifully crafted, and visually stunning. It’s easy to slip into the uneasy beauty of Black Mirror, making the moments when you are yanked out to face reality all the more unsettling, and upsetting. Viewers of Black Mirror will never catch a break — much like the programme’s characters.