Photo courtesy of Netflix
Earlier this month, The Verge ran an equally fascinating and unsettling article about a computer engineer named Eugenia who fed all of her text conversations with her late friend Roman—who died after being struck by a car—into an artificial neural network. Eugenia's goal was to see if she could digitally reanimate Roman as a chatbot that could imitate his dialogue closely enough to recreate their conversations. She accomplished her goal well enough to make her miss her friend even more, enough to trick herself into forgetting Roman was gone.
The article drew immediate comparisons to Black Mirror; the first season episode "Be Right Back" followed a nearly identical plot. But how does that technological advancement affect the perception of the Black Mirror episode? It wouldn't be terrifying in 2016 to watch an episode of television about, say, a fax machine that prints dispatches from the dead. So is Black Mirror more effective when it's just ahead of evolving technology or when it depicts an inconceivable future?The answer to that question depends on what you define as an effective episode of Charlie Brooker's technophobic, dystopian anthology series. Black Mirror is frequently compared to The Twilight Zone, as past episodes have delivered the same kind of disturbing twists and existential dread that Rod Serling's classic series is known for. But in season three, Brooker has taken a slightly different approach to the concept. He's experimenting with telling different types of stories within Black Mirror's futuristic framework, stories that incorporate some kind of technological shift but don't necessarily aim to chill or unsettle the viewer. "Nosedive," the season premiere, is such an episode.The excellent Bryce Dallas Howard stars as Lacie Pound, a woman with an insatiable hunger for social media validation. In the real world, Lacie's neediness would be a terribly unattractive quality. It's no more attractive in the world of "Nosedive," but it's much easier to understand. In this universe, social media approval has become the ultimate currency, and everyone is armed with the power to upvote and downvote the people they encounter in their everyday social interactions. Each person's cumulative rating affects every aspect of life, from where you can live to what venues you can get into. With a one-to-five-star rating system, "Nosedive" takes place in a world that essentially operates as if everyone is an Uber driver, and playing Katy Perry too loud or clipping too many curbs can get you exiled from society. It's not so much a dystopian scenario as a futuristic literalization of the way people currently live.
In other words, "Nosedive" is a relatable situation taken to comedic extremes. Black Mirror has dabbled in gallows humor before, but this time Brooker has help from acclaimed comedy collaborators Michael Schur and Rashida Jones, who wrote the script based on a story outline by Brooker. "Nosedive" remains faithful to the Black Mirror tone, but there's a palpable playfulness to the dialogue. For example, Lacie tells her shiftless brother that living with him hasn't exactly been a "rainbow sandwich," because apparently rainbow sandwiches are delicious. But the episode also follows a familiar "comedy of errors" structure so it feels vaguely comedic even when what's happening is heartbreaking.
The thing about social media is that it tricks you into thinking you want to be famous whether or not you actually do. So there is a certain terror baked into the premise of "Nosedive," given that it's tempting enough to contour your life for your social media audience with not much incentive beyond feeling validated. Lacie isn't a bad person; she's just someone trying to play the game according to the rules set out for her. She wants an apartment at a swanky new complex that only admits those with near-flawless approval scores. But as in real life, improving one's reputation is a lengthy process, and any attempt to speed up that process results in a counterproductive inauthenticity. Lacie gets a rare opportunity to jump the line when her childhood friend Naomie (Alice Eve) calls and invites her to be the maid of honor in her upcoming wedding. Even though they're barely friends anymore, the high-powered guest list grants Lacie the opportunity to pole-vault into the upper-echelon of scores. If she can just nail her reception toast, Lacie will have the rating of her dreams.It's quickly obvious that Lacie will blow this, thanks to Howard's amazing, grating performance. Lacie's need for external approval has left her with some pretty insufferable quirks: the Stepford Wife voice she does in casual conversation, the ear-piercing screeching sound she uses to feign enthusiasm. Lacie's death by a thousand cuts escalates in a hurry, starting with an awkward taxi ride, which leads to an unfortunate interaction with a ticket agent at the airport which further lowers her score. She's offered one opportunity after another to drop out of the wedding, but she's already put down a non-refundable deposit on her dream apartment, so there's no turning back.As sad and empty as Lacie's quest is, she's quite easy to sympathize with. If nothing else, I applaud her persistence, because I'd have given up almost immediately. But Lacie trudges ahead, letting no obstacle prevent her from achieving her goal, even when the bride explicitly tells her not to come to the wedding. Naomie confesses that inviting Lacie was all about numbers for her, a chance to boost her own favorables by drafting a childhood friend to participate in her wedding. Unlike Lacie, Naomie doesn't have to worry about her rating—she's just padding the lead she already has—so it's nothing for her to disinvite Lacie, especially once Lacie's rating goes into a downward spiral. Part of me wanted Lacie to give up and go home, and another part wanted her to crash the wedding and learn to stop giving a damn.Naturally, Lacie chooses the latter option, arriving to the wedding a muddy, disheveled mess and insisting on giving the world's most mortifying wedding toast. (You've been dethroned, Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married.) She's quickly ejected, which comes as no surprise since her rating was so low she couldn't even be a guest at the wedding let alone grab the microphone. Lacie is thrown in a jail, where she winds up yelling insults at the guy in the cell across from hers, finally learning to embrace the joy of running out of fucks to give. It's a hopeful ending, and a surprisingly romantic one considering all the vile insults. Lacie's journey is reflected in the show's own evolution. By pulling its gut punches, at least some of the time, Black Mirror has shown its willingness to grow up, or at least update its firmware.Follow Joshua Alston on Twitter.